Category Archives: Ireland

First Week Completed for Sexton

Sexton

Sexton attacks under the watchful eye of Laurent Labit at Racing Metro’s training centre in Plessis-Robinson. (c) Emilie Manchon.

Jonny Sexton completed his first week of training with Racing Metro today, having been omitted from the club’s opening friendly of the summer last night. The Ireland outhalf’s pre season schedule got underway on Monday, before an interview with Le Parisien, a popular daily newspaper, was published on Tuesday morning. Sexton took the chance to explain his reasons for joining Racing, as well as underlining that there was more to his decision to join the club than just the high wages on offer.

Racing had an open training session on Tuesday afternoon, which followed a more intense run-out behind closed doors earlier in the day. That afternoon, Sexton was involved in his first press conference as a Racing player, where he fielded questions about settling in Paris, his ambitions and his views on the Top 14. The remainder of the week involved a heavy pre season programme alongside fellow Lions Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate. Coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers wisely decided not to involve the trio in yesterday’s 14-6 loss to Toulon.

Sexton may play next Friday though, when Racing face Harlequins in a money-spinning exhibition game in Geneva. That contrasts greatly with how Mike Phillips is being eased in back at Bayonne. The Welshman is expected to miss the club’s first two Top 14 games, before re-entering the fray on the 31st of August against USAP. Conversely, Sexton is likely to be start Racing’s opening league fixture against Brive in La Rochelle on the 17th of this month. Racing have moved the game away from Paris due to the number of the locals who will still be on holidays.

Sexton is the type of player who likes to play as many games as possible, so he will have no problem being involved so soon after the Lions tour, but it could be five months down the line before he starts to feel the true effects of a relatively short break. That said, Racing president Jacky Lorenzetti isn’t paying Sexton to rest and in a year when the Top 14 will to be more competitive than ever, every single game is of importance.

Racing suffered defeat in their first game under the new coaching duo against Toulon, but that will cause no great concern. In what was a surprisingly hard-hitting encounter on the Mediterranean coast, the home side scored two penalty tries, with both converted by Jonny Wilkinson. Racing’s only response was two penalties from the boot of outhalf Jonathan Wisniewski. The Frenchman is a good option for les deux Laurents, but will almost certainly need to get used to playing back-up.

For Sexton, the first week is over. The hard work starts again on Monday and by this time next week we may have seen the 28-year-old in Racing’s sky blue and white jersey for the first time. The French adventure is underway and off to a good start.

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Photo: Emilie Manchon.

IRFU Still Silent on Men’s 7s Team

(c) Jack Aherne.

The following is a guest post by Cian Aherne.

2013 marks the first year that Ireland have not entered a men’s 7s rugby team in the 7s World Cup. We knew this would be the case over a year ago but seeing the World Cup kick off in Moscow this weekend brings it back into focus again. Looking through the countries in the IRB World Rankings, I can’t actually find another rugby nation that does not have a men’s 7s team in development – certainly none in the top 20 considering Italy have now started a 7s programme.

What is the IRFU’s current stance on Irish men’s 7s rugby? There are no plans in place. Club 7s tournaments have begun and there are 7s tournaments in development on the ground in Ireland (such as the underage Umbrella 7s, the IRFU national 7s fixture list and the World Mini Games) but there are no plans at all to have a national team or to attempt to enter the Olympics in 2016. As the governing body of the sport in Ireland, the IRFU are the only entity eligible to enter international IRB or IOC competitive programmes; their permission/consent is required in order for a national team to enter.

Considering the lack of a plan from the IRFU and the likelihood that this is down to a shortage of available funding, a group of club rugby players have put forward a proposal to the IRFU for an independently-funded team to compete internationally. This has been made on the back of publicised support from the likes of high profile rugby professionals such as Matt Williams, Doug Howlett, Mike Ruddock, Tony Ward and Alan Quinlan.

One would think that the IRFU could hardly refuse consent for such a proposal considering it would not cost them anything and would be further boosting their reputation worldwide, but they have refused such independent proposals for European and World Student Championship teams in the past. The proposal is currently awaiting a response.

It is difficult to come up with reasons for the refusal of this proposal, and such a denial could be seen as taking away Irish athletes’ rights to Olympic participation. If an Irish athlete is to participate in the Olympics, they need to reach a certain standard. Imagine the Athletics Association of Ireland (AAI) point-blank refusing to permit a track athlete from competing if they made that standard… Worse, imagine the AAI actually refusing to let that athlete even try and make the standard in the first place!

The following are the Olympic Rugby 7s qualification standards and the path Ireland would need to take in order to attempt to qualify for the Olympic Games in 2016:

Olympic Qualification Standards:

-       The top four teams in the IRB World 7s Series 2014/15 automatically qualify.

-       The top one team in a continental tournament in each continent qualify.

-       A repechage tournament will be played for the remaining teams where the top one/two teams qualify for the Olympics depending on whether or not Brazil are given an automatic place.

Ireland’s Potential Route:

-       Rank in the top two nations in Europe who do not compete in the World 7s Series in the 2013/14 season, then…

-       Finish in the top 4 at the Hong Kong-based World Series Pre-Qualifier tournament on 28th-30th March 2014, then…

-       Finish as one of the top three teams at the London-based World Series Core Team Qualifier tournament on 1oth-11th May 2014, then…

-       Finish in the top four in the Sevens World Series in the 2014/15 season.

  • If unsuccessful, possible to qualify as the top one from the remaining European nations.
  • If unsuccessful, possible to qualify as the top one/two from the remaining repechage tournament.

While success in attempting such a route may seem unlikely at this stage, Ireland actually have a reasonable history in the 7s game. For instance, when Ireland have put a team together for 7s World Cups, they have always qualified and finished inside the top 20 ranked nations. They were even beaten semi-finalists in 1993. Furthermore, the Irish 7s team is the only national team ever to beat New Zealand.

Irish club side, The Moosa Daly Wild Geese (Twitter & Facebook), have now won the Dubai Club 7s Championship, the Kinsale 7s and several other Irish tournaments with little financial backing. The Wild Geese offer a perfect template for identifying Irish club players from all divisions who have the potential to excel at 7s if given the opportunity. High-standard club players in Ireland with international, professional and 7s experience (such as Danny Riordan, Ciaran Ruddock and Darragh Fanning) are in their rugby prime at present and, with no professional rugby career ensuing, could be a perfect fit to be the backbone of an international team.

If in reading this, you’re somehow still not convinced that Irish players should at least be given consent to try and compete for the Olympic Games, consider the Olympic creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” Surely there could not be a more fitting creed for the style and attitude of Irish rugby players.

If any readers are involved with the IRFU, IRB, FIRA or IOC and are interested in the proposal mentioned above, would like to read it, or put a national team through to the European circuit, please contact Cian Aherne.

Twitter: @CianAherne

The very best of luck to the Irish women’s 7s team competing in Moscow this weekend. They have performed incredibly well to qualify and are a perfect example of the potential for 7s rugby in Ireland. Follow 7s Rugby Ireland for the latest updates on 7s rugby in Ireland.

The Day Ireland Beat New Zealand

Munster All Blacks Thomond

Were Munster the only Irish team ever to beat New Zealand? Read on… (c) Martin Dobey.

Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks. Each time we play the standard bearers of world rugby, we are reminded of this stat. In 27 efforts, Ireland have lost to New Zealand 26 times. The solitary draw came in 1973, a 10-10 stalemate in Lansdowne Road. At underage level, we have never beaten the Baby Blacks. Mike Ruddock’s U20 side came close last Thursday, but the record remains unbroken. Our women’s team has never beaten the Black Ferns, although they haven’t had a chance to do so yet.

It would appear that Munster are the only Irish rugby team to have beaten New Zealand, with that famous 12-0 victory in 1978. But if you dig a little deeper, there is a dirty secret to be exposed: Ireland beat New Zealand in 1973, by a scoreline of 22-18. How has this result gone ignored you will surely ask? Possibly because the game took place at the International Seven-A-Side Tournament at Murrayfield in Scotland. That’s right, sevens!

On the 7th of April in 1973, the Scottish Rugby Union held the tournament as part of their centenary celebrations. Eight international teams were involved, representing each of the IRB-registered rugby nations at the time: Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, France, Australia, New Zealand, and an SRU President’s VII which included several South African players.

Ireland’s nine-man squad was a talented one. Vincent Becker was a lightning quick winger from Lansdowne who also represented Ireland in the 100 metres. He went on to win two Ireland caps in 1974. Arthur McMaster was a winger from Ballymena, who won 18 senior Irish caps, scoring 2 tries. Seamus Dennison was the the Limerick man who made that tackle for Munster when they beat the All Blacks. He won three Irish caps, scoring one try.


Kevin Mays was London-born but playing out of UCD. The lock won four full caps for Ireland in 1973. Donal Canniffe was the captain of Munster when they beat the All Blacks. In ’73, the scrumhalf was still with Cork Con, before later joining Lansdowne. Fergus Slattery was already a well established Irish international, and a non-capped Lions tourist in ’71. The flanker’s career finished with 61 Ireland caps and four for the Lions.

Hooker Pa Whelan was another involved in Munster’s win in ’78. The Garryowen man went on the win 19 Irish caps. Terry Moore was a big No. 8 from Highfield in Cork. He would end his career with 12 caps for Ireland. Last but not least was the captain, Mike Gibson. The Belfast man’s Ireland career had begun in 1964 and he had already toured three times with the Lions. After 69 caps for Ireland and 12 for the Lions, he went on to become an IRB Hall of Famer.

It was certainly a formidable Irish selection. In their opening game of the tournament they came up against New Zealand and duly dispatched them 22-18, having led 10-6 at the break. It’s unclear who did the scoring for Ireland, with the available records not extending to that detail. The Irish team went on to beat Australia 16-4 in their next game, before securing a place in the final with a 24-12 win over Scotland.

The final saw the Irish face an English team of considerable strength themselves: David Duckham, Steve Smith, Andy Ripley, Roger Uttley, Peter Preece, John Gray, Peter Rossborough and Keith Fielding were captained by the enigmatic Fran Cotton. The English were victorious, claiming the trophy by another 22-18 scoreline. Although the tournament was never awarded official status by the IRB, the Irish team had essentially finished runners-up in the first Sevens World Cup, and beaten New Zealand for the first time in our rugby history.

happy european champion Portugal

Portugal celebrate their win at the European 7s in 2008. In Ireland’s squad at that tournament were James Coughlan, Darren Cave, Ian Keatley and Chris Henry. Ireland finished 4th to qualify for the 2009 World Cup, the last time we fielded a team.

There’s more to this than just a good story. The 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens takes place in Russia from the 28th to 30th of June, with the likes of Portugal, Hong Kong, Uruguay, Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Tunisia all involved in the party. Following the Italian rugby federation’s recent decision to implement a sevens programme, Ireland are now the only nation in the top 17 of the IRB World Rankings without a sevens team.

The developmental advantages which sevens offers to 15-a-side players are something I’ve written about before, but the fact that sevens is an Olympic sport adds even more value to the calls for the IRFU to get behind it.

Something is amiss…

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Photos: Martin Dobey, Stefanie.

Ireland’s Fifth Province

http://www.irishrugby.ie/images/content/provincialrugby/IRFU-Content-Exiles-Promo.gif

The following is a guest post by Rory O’Kane.

Ireland’s official rugby anthem Ireland’s Call mentions the four proud provinces of Ireland in its lyrics but fails to mention the Irish Exiles, who have been fundamental to Irish rugby. The Exiles system has provided us with players of the calibre of Simon Geoghegan, Simon Easterby, Rob Henderson and Nick Popplewell. The latter trio were Test Lions, while Geoghegan was touted as a likely Lion prior to injury in 1997.

With Ireland having a relatively small rugby population, Ireland needs the biggest player pool it can possibly get and the Exiles system facilitates the growth of Irish rugby’s player pool.

In recent years the link with the Irish exiles had weakened. Players such as Shane Geraghty, Andrew Sheridan, Nick Kennedy, Paul Doran-Jones (Ireland U19, U21) and Kieran Brookes (Ireland U18, U19, U20) slipped through the net. However, Irish rugby wasn’t overly concerned; after all it was too busy basking in the success of the “golden generation” of 2004-09 with three Triple Crowns, a first Grand Slam in 61 years and the unprecedented success of the provinces at Heineken Cup level.

It took the 2012 scrum fiasco in Twickenham for the IRFU to decide to strengthen the Exile link with the intention of increasing Irish rugby’s player pool and, more particularly, to unearth a few tight-head props. The IRFU have since appointed Mark Blair as the Development Manager for the Irish Exiles, an arm of the IRFU that runs representative sides for Irish-qualified players based in England, Scotland and Wales. He commented upon his appointment:

“This is a full-time IRFU position because they want to work much more closely with the Exiles. We feel we are only scratching the surface of the players in England, Scotland and Wales that are available to play for Ireland.

It is an alternative opportunity and we are not trying to take players away from anywhere else. But we want to offer that choice to young players of being eligible to play for Ireland.

The recession has seen more Irish people move to Britain and we want to give a pathway for young-Irish qualified players to progress their rugby with the possibilities of international rugby and also the chance to move to Ireland.”

The IRFU already appear to be reaping the rewards of utilising their Exile branch again. No less than 7 Exiles being involved with Ireland U20’s this season:

2013 Irish U20 Exiles

Conor Joyce (Ulster Rugby):  Solihull-born Joyce down the Leicester Tigers academy to join Ulster last season.  The 6ft 3ins blindside/no. 8 has made seven appearances for the U20s this year and has even captained the side against Fiji. He is held in high regard in Ravenhill and even made his Ulster debut against Glasgow in February.

George McGuigan (Newcastle Falcons): Standing at 6ft and 105kg, the hooker has been a mainstay in the no. 2 jersey for Ireland making six U20 appearances. In April, he was rewarded with a one-year contract at Newcastle, despite not having made his Falcons’ debut yet. He has made the first team bench as an unused substitute. McGuigan spent last season on a dual-registration deal with Tynesdale in National League 1.

Ryan Furness (Worcester Warriors): The tighthead prop has been battling Adam Boland and Chris Taylor for the number 3 jersey. Despite regularly making the match day squads in both the Six Nations and JWC he has yet to start. Furness has made two first team appearances for Worcester Warriors.

David Panter (Connacht Rugby): The 5ft 11ins Surrey-born fullback was identified through the Exiles system and signed by the Connacht academy. A former Ireland U18 clubs international, he has made five Ireland U20 appearances and is part of the JWC squad.

Alex Wootton (Northampton Saints): The Saints winger was called up to replace the injured Tom Daly in the current JWC. Wootten was part of Northampton’s squad for the 2012 Premiership 7s. He was capped at U16 level by England. The speedster spent this season on a dual-registration deal at Cambridge. Wootten is eligible for the Ireland U20s again next season.

Jake Caulfield (Ulster Rugby): The 6ft 3ins, 18 stone prop from Western-Supermare spent two seasons in the London Irish academy before joining Bristol for a season. In October of 2012 Ulster signed him on a 3-year contract. He also had a spell in New Zealand with Petone in Wellington. Caulfield is a former England U16 and U17 international and can play both sides of the scrum. He made 1 Ireland U20 appearance vs Wales in the Six Nations.

Alex O’ Meara From the famed Hartpury College, the winger made his single Ireland U20 appearance vs Wales in the Six Nations.

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You can follow Rory O’Kane, author of this piece, on Twitter. You can also follow the Irish Exiles on Twitter. For more on Irish players based abroad, click the ‘Exiled Irish’ tab at the top of the page.

Second-Five-Eighth

Ian Madigan

Ian Madigan in Leinster colours. (c) Martin Dobey.

One of the more interesting head-to-heads during last month’s Pro 12 final was that at inside centre. While neither Ian Madigan nor Stuart Olding had a decisive impact on the outcome of that particular game, their futures in the position hold exciting possibilities for Irish rugby. Alongside JJ Hanrahan at Munster, these young players offer something different to the common concept of an inside centre.

The traditional view is that a 12 is someone to get your team over the advantage line, a big man who runs direct lines and takes out a few defenders. Jamie Roberts of Wales and Munster’s James Downey are fine examples of this ‘classic’ inside centre. These guys are 6ft 4ins and weigh around 110kg. While they are expected to offload out of the tackle, their main role is to get their team onto the front foot.

The trio of Olding (20), Madigan (24) and Hanrahan (20) come from an altogether different mould. Physically they are remarkably similar, standing at roughly 5ft 11ins and weighing around 90kg. In modern rugby, where giants like George North roam in wide spaces, these young Irish backs are a refreshing blast from the past.

It’s not really an issue of size here though, rather the different strengths that these talented youngsters offer. All three are versatile. Madigan has started at 10, 12 and 15 for Leinster. Olding has played at 10 and 12 for Ulster, but has experience at 13 and 15 at underage level. Hanrahan has been picked for Munster at 10 and 12. He too has the tools to play 15.

These are multi-skilled, complete players. What it means is that when they line out at 12 for their provinces, they offer a broad range of abilities outside the traditional role of a bosh merchant. All three are excellent playmakers. They share passing skills, vision, awareness of space and the ability to beat defenders with footwork rather than pure brawn.

JJ Hanrahan arrives copy

Hanrahan on debut for Munster this season. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

The development of the role of the inside centre is not confined to Ireland. At Toulon, the Australian Matt Giteau is the attacking playmaker in their backline. He too has a versatile past, having played 10, 12 and even 9 at the highest level. The positioning of a creative player at inside centre is popular in the Southern Hemisphere, where the 12 is often referred to as the ‘second-five-eighth’.

The perceived downside of having a smaller man at inside centre is a physical disadvantage. Of the trio highlighted here, Olding is probably the most effective ball carrier in traffic. His balance and footwork mean he is rarely smashed. But as Madigan showed on Saturday, he is more than willing to bash it up the middle when that’s required. Defensively, all three players are brave and make their tackles.

The positioning of Hanrahan and Madigan in the centre this season has to some extent been a case of needs must. With Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton owning the outhalf positions at provincial level, the youngsters have had to fit in elsewhere. Next season, Madigan will be wearing 10 for Leinster, but Sexton will continue to block his way with the Ireland team.

At Munster, Ian Keatley will expect to be next in line at outhalf. For Ulster, Paddy Jackson looks being the number 10 for years to come.  Olding will also have to compete with Luke Marshall, another who had a superb season. But moving forward, there is real value in keeping Madigan, Olding and Hanrahan at ‘second-five-eighth’.

Ireland is blessed with a stockpile of strike-running talent out wide at the moment. The likes of Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy, Rob Kearney, Andrew Conway and Luke Fitzgerald need the ball in their hands as often as possible. With a distributing 12 on the pitch, the possibilities are thrilling.

Not only do Madigan, Hanrahan and Olding offer the passing game to get the ball wide quickly, they also possess the subtle vision and sleight of hand to slip these runners into gaps when they roam infield.

Whether through fluke or foresight, the Irish provinces have developed the role of the inside centre this season. The attacking variations that could result under Joe Schmidt are hugely exciting for Irish rugby.

Olding and Madigan are in North America with Ireland at the moment, where it looks as though Madigan will be seen as an outhalf. Strangely, Hanrahan isn’t in the Emerging Ireland squad for the Tbilisi Cup. Perhaps a big pre-season awaits?

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Photos: Ivan O’Riordan, Martin Dobey.

Racing Ready for Sexton

Picamoles, Johnston, Nyanga, Albacete, Burgess

Racing take on Toulouse in tomorrow night’s play-off. The Parisian outfit have lost both meetings with the current holders this season. (c) Pierre Selim.

In February, I wrote a piece detailing Racing Metro’s history and recent form. For anyone who’s not too up-to-date on how Racing have developed since billionaire Jacky Lorenzetti bought the club in 2006, it’s certainly worth starting there. In this article, I take a look at how Les Ciels et Blancs have fared in the second half of the current campaign.

Racing’s season up to the mid-way point hadn’t been particularly smooth sailing. Knocked out of the H Cup at the pool stages, and suffering from inconsistency, the Parisian club were 8th in the Top 14. One of the major problems in the first half of the season had been the lack of a leader in the outhalf position. Previous incumbent Jonathan Wisniewski had been struggling with injury, and neither medical joker Olly Barkley nor young hopeful Mathieu Belie could fill in convincingly in his absence.

However, the return of France ‘A’-capped Wisniewski at the turn of the year coincided with a huge surge in form. From the 30th of December, with a 40-6 win over Agen, right up until the end of March, Racing went on a nine-game winning streak. With Wisniewski back at 10, Gonzalo Quesada’s team finally clicked. The outhalf has been taking almost every point on offer, and Racing’s confidence was obvious to see in excellent wins at home against Clermont and away to Montpellier.

Olly Barkley

After arriving as a medical joker, Barkley struggled to make an impact. He has left the club and is now being heavily linked with Grenoble for next season. (c) Pierre Selim.

That winning run was ended dramatically by Toulouse, thanks to a Lionel Beauxis conversion with the last kick of the game. Regardless, Racing have qualified for the Top 14 play-offs. Last weekend’s win over Castres ensured Le Racing finished the regular season in 5th, just one point off 4th-placed Castres. What it all means is that Lorenzetti’s club visit Toulouse tomorrow night in the barrage phase of the play-offs. A semi-final against Toulon awaits the victor.

Regardless of what happens in the knock-out stages, Racing have qualified for next season’s Heineken Cup, which will certainly come as a relief to Jonny Sexton. A first year spent playing in the Amlin Challenge Cup would have been anti-climatic. For rugby fans worldwide, it means more excitement. While Racing’s transfer activity remains unconfirmed by the club itself, it appears that Lorenzetti has bankrolled a remarkable bunch of additions for next season.

Midi Olympique, the French rugby newspaper, is reporting the following players to Racing as done deals: Sexton, Springbok lock Juandre Kruger, Welsh internationals Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts, Northampton props Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga’uiha, France flanker Wenceslas Lauret, Castres wing Marc Andreu, and Perpignan wide man Adrien Planté. That’s all on top of the capture of Castres’ excellent coaching duo of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers.

Six Nations Player of the Tournament, Dan Lydiate. Wales Grand Slam Celebration, Senedd 19 March 2012 / Dan Lydiate, Prif Chwaraewr Pencampwriaeth y Chwe Gwlad, Dathliadau Camp Lawn Cymru, Senedd 19 Mawrth 2012

Wales and Lions blindside will be joining Sexton in Paris next season. (c) National Assembly for Wales.

Racing appear to be waiting until their playing season is over to officially announce the signings. These additions will elevate expectations at the club to levels matching the big boys of Clermont and Toulon. Alongside the big-name signings has been the announcement of contract extensions for Le Racing‘s high-quality young players. France scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud, home-grown centre Henry Chavancy, dynamic prop Eddy Ben Arous and flying winger Virimi Vakatawa are among the prolongations.

Fiji-born wide man Vakatawa has been a real discovery over the last two seasons for the Parisian club, scoring 4 tries in 7 starts in the league this year. Indeed, speculation is mounting that the 21-year-old will be capped by France in the near future. The FFR are apparently awaiting confirmation from the IRB on Vakatawa’s eligibility for their test series in New Zealand next month. Meanwhile, Ben Arous has provided ball-carrying impact off the bench this season, while Chavancy has looked like a French international in-the-making.

With the likes of über-skillful fullback Juan Martin ‘El Mago’ Hernàndez, Argentinian winger Juan Imhoff, and French international trio Dmitri Szarzewski, Luc Ducalcon and Benjamin Fall also contracted for next season, Racing’s squad is bursting with talent. Toulon and Clermont will continue to improve, but Lorenzetti’s money has closed the gap with alarming speed. New entraineurs Labit and Travers have all the tools they need to challenge domestically and in Europe. Sexton will be excited to be involved.

Juan Martin Hernandez

El Mago has shown sparks of his former genius this season. Sexton may be the man to re-ignite the magician’s undoubted talent. (c) Pierre Selim.

Elsewhere, the delays Racing were encountering in attempting to build their new stadium, just 700m from the Grande Arche de la Défense, have finally been countered. Last month, the final protest was withdrawn. Construction of Arena 92, originally scheduled for completion in 2014, should be finished by the end of 2015. The stunning plans include 32,00 seats for sporting events, 40,000 capacity for concerts, and 33,000 square metres of offices, shops and restaurants. Building costs are expected to total around €320 million. Meanwhile, the club’s recently opened world-class training facility is running smoothly.

All these parts make up the package that attracted Sexton to Racing Metro. Lorenzetti looks to have delivered on the player investment promises that helped him to lure Sexton to Paris. Under two of the most highly-rated coaches in France, Sexton will be expected to make this Racing side tick.

Foreign players in France are laden with massive expectations from fans, coaches and co-players. If things don’t go right, they’ll be the first to be blamed, as the likes of Mike Phillips and Joe Rokocoko at Bayone have found out. However, if things go according to plan, they can become idols and focal points for their clubs. Jonny Wilkinson is the most high-profile example. Sexton will be aiming to emulate, and better, the Toulon outhalf.

Move over Wilko, there’s a new king in town!

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Racing Metro take on Toulouse tomorrow night in what is essentially a Top 14 quarter-final. Kick-off is at 8.00pm Irish time. As far as I can see, the match isn’t live anywhere apart from Canal+, but Setanta usually show re-runs.

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Photos: Pierre Selim, National Assembly for Wales.

What Does Irish Club Rugby Really Mean?

DOORADOYLE

Two pillars of Irish club rugby, Garryowen and Young Munster, do battle. (c) Liam Coughlan.

The IRFU published their Club Sustainability Report last month, after a year of investigating the subject of payment to club players. While the central objective was addressing the development of what the report dubs a “pay for play” culture, the findings pose several questions about the general purpose of Irish club rugby, and where it is heading. The IRFU need to fully address these issues before imposing financial constraints and other criteria upon the clubs.

The report’s foreword includes mention that the Working Party (the committee in charge of conducting the report, including Billy Glynn and Ian McIlrath) members “had different perspectives on the future direction of club rugby.” Indeed, the report admits that its recommendations “were not endorsed unanimously by all members of the Working Party.” Clearly, this is a divisive issue and one that is going to take some time to be fully understood.

Regardless, the report’s recommendations have been taken on board by the IRFU and will be implemented from the 2014/15 season onwards. Amongst the changes, payments to club players will be prohibited, transfers will be strictly controlled and clubs will have to meet minimum qualifying criteria to earn involvement in the All Ireland League. Most of these changes have been explained in depth elsewhere in the media over the past week, so it’s not worth outlining each of them here.

What hasn’t really been explained or discussed is how these changes might affect club rugby in Ireland and those deeply involved in the game. The report mentions that “[f]or some time the IRFU has been working with stakeholders within schools and clubs in agreeing and defining the values of Irish Rugby.” Subsequently, those values have been listed as Integrity, Discipline, Inclusiveness, Excellence and Fun. On first reading it’s a balanced list, but when you really look at these values, there are inherent contradictions.

UCD Rugby

UCD have earned promotion to Division 1A of the AIL this season, featuring several players who aspire to play professional rugby. (c) smcclaw.

The report accepts that “the genie of professionalism is out of the bottle and cannot be replaced”. It also acknowledges that to remove all player payments “would be to militate against those clubs which have the desire to reward players and which have the necessary resources to do so.” But are the new changes not trying to replace that genie? The rulings are certain to militate against some clubs.

Two of the values mentioned above are Excellence and Discipline. The fact is that several Irish clubs run themselves in a professional way. Their players are disciplined in their pursuit of excellence. Supervised gym sessions, meetings with nutritionists and video analysis are part of the schedule. The time and effort that goes into it, particularly from players, surely deserves some reward? Does the IRFU want the All Ireland League to serve as a breeding ground for professional players? And if not, where is the playing space for those players who have professional ambitions?

Professional rugby has changed how amateur clubs and players see themselves. Sport at adult level has always been about winning, but professionalism has made it the priority. Some clubs are now aspiring to a “level which cannot be sustained.” That is backed up by the debt figures included in the IRFU’s report. But where do you draw the line for these ambitious clubs who are over-reaching? Aspiring for Excellence is one of the IRFU’s values. Can you really tell a club that they should focus on Inclusiveness and Fun rather than trying to rise as high as possible?

TOM CLIFFORD PARK

Lansdowne, under Mike Ruddock, were Division 1A Champions this season. (c) Liam Coughlan.

The transfer of players between clubs is one of the main focus points of the report. Player loyalty is suggested as vital, with the recommendation that players “should be encouraged to remain with their ‘mother’ club”. Much like the recent ruling at Munster Schools level on player transfers, this is a topic that needs more debate. Why should a talented player not seek to play at a higher level, to pursue Excellence as best he can? For that individual, would it not be more Fun to benefit from playing with better players and train under better coaches?

If the IRFU are going to clamp down on player transfers, then how do they offset the disgruntlement that might arise? Is there enough being done to ensure that coaching levels across the country are fulfilling the value of Excellence? If players are going to stay with their local club, are they really being given the chance to pursue their ambitions? The report suggests that payment to club coaches should continue, as long as it “encourages the recruitment and development of indigenous coaching expertise.” There’s another contradiction in that. Does payment to Irish players not encourage the development of indigenous playing expertise?

It’s a highly debatable topic and one that certainly needs further discussion. Some of the changes set to be implemented may be impossible to actually enforce. If last year’s rulings on non Irish-qualified player numbers at provincial level (and the subsequent lack of clarity) are anything to go by, then this subject is far from decided.

Please feel free to post your opinions on the proposed changes, the values of Irish club rugby and the direction you would like to see it going. It would be interesting to hear different perspectives on the matter, so leave a comment below.

Read the full IRFU Club Sustainability Report here.

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Photos: Liam Coughlan, smcclaw.