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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Ruaidhri O'Connor Twitter

Rúaidhrí O’Connor asks: Is the grass greener for Leinster nomads or just another shade of blue?

Leo Cullen will rue Tadhg Beirne as one that got away. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Eight years ago, an Australian took a look at the map of Irish rugby and decided that the borders between the provinces needed to come down.

For the professional game to truly thrive, David Nucifora reckoned that Irish players must be willing to spread their wings and look beyond their local teams.

Interprovincial movement was nothing new of course. During the amateur era players moved for work and represented the province they were living in, while in the first decade and a half of professionalism there were players who saw their route to a green jersey blocked and decided to go on the road.

Nucifora wanted to be scientific about it; assessing the depth charts across the four provinces and moving players from one to another to make sure that each of them was well-stocked with Irish-qualified players.

In 2018, the union’s performance director warned against “parochialism” as he sought to convince his stakeholders that the fluid movement of players between the provinces was the way forward.

Some would argue that the professional game in Ireland was built on that very parochialism. They could easily point to the example of Wales where the union created faux regions that have never caught the public imagination as the dangers of diluting the rivalries that naturally exist.

Over the next two weeks, those local hostilities will ramp up once more and when Leinster, in particular, face off against their rivals, they’ll see familiar faces staring them down from the opposite side.

“It’s about making sure that we have the right players getting appropriate game time,” Nucifora reasoned. “Because as much as there is the strength of parochialism, it can also be our biggest challenge. We’ve just got to manage it.

“No one wants to take away the identity of the teams but at the same time, no one wants to see the Ireland team doing poorly.

“We’ve got to make sure that the right decisions are made. The way the system works at the moment is that yes, there is a desire from us at times for people to take up opportunities but at the end of the day, it’s up to the players.”

That has always been the central message from the union, but there are multiple examples of players being told in no uncertain terms that their international prospects would be enhanced if they were to jump ship.

Joey Carbery’s 2018 move to Munster is the most high-profile example, a move apparently orchestrated by Joe Schmidt who subsequently denied all involvement.

Carbery was rolled out at a press conference before the Ireland team departed for Australia that summer and he spoke of how tough it was to leave the team he’d just won a Heineken Champions Cup with.

A few months later, he received a standing ovation at Musgrave Park as he made his debut in red.

Injury has limited his impact and Leinster remain convinced he’d be better deployed at full-back, but he’s consistently been picked as reserve out-half by Ireland when fit and for Nucifora, that’s vindication enough.

Carbery’s fellow Kildare man Tadhg Beirne took the route less travelled.

Released by Leinster, he was picked up last minute by the Scarlets and thrived in Wales to the extent that they wanted to cap him. The IRFU got him into Munster and he’s now their best player.

As examples of the benefits of leaving Leinster go, he’s the gold standard.

Beirne’s time in blue was ruined by injury and no doubt Leo Cullen laments him as the one who got away, but the reality for the coach is that he has a steady conveyor belt of young talent coming into the squad from the local schools on a yearly basis.

They have all grown up during an era of Leinster dominance and want to be part of it and, while the road to the first team is ridiculously difficult, it drives standards.

The examples of those who have moved would not inspire confidence either, especially when the quality of coaching at Leinster is so high.

When you pore over the list of players who’ve left in the Cullen era, there are few standout examples of great successes.

Jeremy Loughman is one of four Ireland squad members from November who made the mid-career move from Leinster to Munster and he has made the most of that opportunity by steadily gaining experience to the point where he’s getting capped by Andy Farrell.

​Jordi Murphy has had a decent stint at Ulster, but currently can’t get into the team, while Jack McGrath’s hip injuries limited his impact.

John Cooney is one of the great success stories in terms of a player becoming a provincial stalwart after leaving Leinster, although he’s somewhat bizarrely never been able to convince the Ireland management of his merits.

For the players involved, it’s a tough call.

Before he was a Leinster senior player, Will Connors was strongly encouraged to move to Connacht.

“I was happy to stay here, I hadn’t been here too long, I wanted to give myself a chance,” he explained of that decision.

“I back my product just as much as anyone else, and I felt that if I gave myself a chance I could get as many games as possible.

“I’ve come through the whole way at underage, and I’ve played with these guys – James Ryan, Max Deegan – the whole way, we had a strong group, they’re some of my best friends, and to come into work and play with these lads, it’s a dream.”

There are benefits for the individual too, as Ian Madigan, who left Leinster for Bordeaux and spent a couple of seasons at Bristol before signing for Ulster, outlined.

“As an experience, it was great for me,” he said of the move to Bordeaux that he openly admits didn’t work from a rugby perspective.

“Moving away really helped me to grow up.

“Leinster was great for me in so many ways, but everything is poured on for you and you don’t really have to think for yourself.

“I had never properly lived away from home and now I had to fend for myself and learn a new language, meet 50 new players and deal with a new culture.”

No doubt there are players at Leinster currently weighing up the option of making a move, but as they do they’ll consider those who have gone before them and wonder whether it’s worth the risk.

It’s impossible to be definitive, but in many cases the grass hasn’t proved much greener at all.

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