Munster played Swansea in the province’s first ever European Cup tie in November 1995 with a crowd of 5,000 attendees at Thomond Park. Six months earlier, 6,500 people had witnessed Shannon and Young Munster play out a 3-3 draw in an early round of the Munster Senior Cup. This is far removed from the modern day landscape of the game. As the amateur game is becoming an extinct creature, the professional game continues to thrive. However the strength of the professional game largely depends on which province you are in. Many high quality players are funnelled towards Leinster and, to a lesser extent, Munster. Connacht will be well aware of this trend having lost Robbie Henshaw and Mike McCarthy in recent times. Similarly, players have had to leave Leinster in search of playing time due to their deep pool of talent; Andrew Conway, Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery to name but a few.
Leinster and Munster appear to have first refusal on young talent. Is this model of player development sustainable? Is promoting two top tier provinces, while Uster and Connacht lag behind, the best way to support the international team? It has been suggested that a change of focus is needed and funding in the current system by a move towards grassroots development and an emphasis on the college game. A possibly avenue to pursue is by introducing and NFL style college draft.
The draft is the primary form of player recruitment in the NFL. In its basic form, the way it functions is the 32 teams in the NFL are ranked by their record from the previous season. Picks 1-20 are allocated by regular season form, while picks 21-32 are allocated on playoff form of the teams successful enough in the regular season to reach the playoffs. For example, last year the Cleveland Browns 0-16, and so they got the first overall pick out of the crop of college players who had declared their availability for the draft. In this case, that was the star quarterback Baker Mayfield who has been a success, with the team showing marked improvement already. The Philadelphia Eagles (the Super Bowl champions) got the 32nd pick. Then, in the second round, the order alternates. The best team have the opening second round pick and the worst team have the closing second round pick. There is a total of seven rounds, with the order alternating each time.
The draft system is hugely important to the NFL, leading to huge interest in the college game. In 2015, the average attendance of an NFL game was 68,400. That same year, the 130 schools in the NCAA Division 1 college game garnered an average attendance of 41,979. For an NFL style draft to apply, the Irish rugby set up there would need a redirection of emphasis towards collegiate rugby. The records of the four provinces in the previous season would then dictate who gets first pick of the emerging talent. This would result in four competitive provinces receiving an even distribution of future international stars.
During the 2017/18 season, €10,805,084 was spent on ‘Elite Player Development’ by the IRFU. €2,929,136 of this went to academies and €447,388 to age-grade teams. These funds would have to be reinvested in other areas, as players would not become committed to provinces before college. Academies would act on a geographical basis preparing players for college. With a refocus of funds and energy towards the grassroots club game and game promotion, an increase in participation is predictable, democratising the game further.
“It doesn’t bother them who they play for as long as they make the NFL”
Peter Dooley is a loosehead prop for Leinster with five appearances so far this season. In an interview conducted with The University Observer, he gave his thoughts on the idea of a draft system. While his first impression was that it may be difficult for the players to move away from home, as in the American model, Dooley also saw the positive impacts an NFL style draft could have. He pointed out how the players coming out of the draft would have no control over who they which team they were selected to play for; “[but] I suppose if you were brought up that way you’d know no different, that’s the way NFL players are – they know no different. It doesn’t bother them who they play for as long as they make the NFL”.
Perhaps this would lend itself to a culture of everyone pulling towards the national team? A culture the IRFU have already instilled here by way of centralised contracts – which has been largely successful. Being one of the very few players in the Leinster setup who came through the club system rather than the schools (along with Tadhg Furlong and Sean O’Brien), Dooley is aware of how a college based draft system would displace the emphasis placed on schools rugby: “It levels the playing field and it would benefit the grassroots rugby especially”.
The strength of rugby in Ireland at the moment is undeniable – thanks to the international and provincial success. The strength of the sport is essential in making a draft system viable. For colleges to benefit from the change in emphasis there would have to be adequate promotion of third level rugby in order to gain interest. In the 2016/17 season’s Champion’s Cup, the highest average attendance in the tournament was Leinster with 30,081. They were followed by Munster in second place (25,900), Ulster in sixth (16,028) and Connacht in eighteenth (7,263). Leinster also topped the attendance charts in the Pro 14 that season, with Ulster and Munster rounding out the top 3. According to attendance figures, Irish people have the largest appetite for rugby in the northern hemisphere – so if any rugby union could successfully implement change and generate public interest in a high quality college game it would be the IRFU.
The German Football Association (DFB) is an example of how re-energizing a game from the grassroots yields results. Following their group exit in the 2004 European Championships, they studied the academies in Ajax and other Dutch clubs with a history of producing talent. 390 bases across Germany were set up with coaches supported by psychologists to assist physical and mental growth for youths aged 11-17. This contributed to a ten year turnaround resulting in a Germany being crowned World Cup champions. While the IRFU do not have the same resources as the DFB; their income is growing year on year and they have never before been in such a position of strength to implement such a radical change to the current rugby landscape.
One of the primary objectives of the Student Sport Ireland’s 2017-2020 Strategic Plan is to “identify and prioritise the securing of additional funding”. Concentrated funding and interest from the IRFU would benefit these aims. The centralised contract system has been a huge success in Irish rugby in managing player welfare around international periods. It is also this centralised contract system that would make transition to a draft system possible; something that could not be done in France or England for example, where clubs hold much more power. While rugby in Ireland is by no means weak, with a world cup on the horizon, could it be made even stronger for the next world cup cycle?