Rugby Gordon D’Arcy: Irish provincial system needs to find a new way of evolving

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Early December tends to overlap two seminal moments in the career of a rugby player. The European campaign is on the line but so is your family’s financial security. The back-to-back Anglo-Irish matches this and next weekend are happening while several Ireland internationals are embroiled in contract negotiations with David Nucifora.

Well, it is Nucifora if you are progressing nicely towards, or retaining, a national contract. Otherwise, you take whatever slice of the provincial budgetary pie that is on offer.

What about the alternative route?

In the wake of Saracens salary cap scandal, English clubs have already begun to increase the focus on their academy systems. Northampton are a prime example. There will be less marquee signings like George North as the next wave of English players are given more opportunities.

Like, at Bristol Bears, where Callum Sheedy is already on Eddie Jones’s radar, having kept Ian Madigan out of the 10 jersey.

I will address the contrasting fates of Ian, Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan, since they moved abroad.

Interestingly, Northampton – where Leinster travel on Saturday – were asked to explain their recruitment strategy recently. If it was in a press conference, head coach Chris Boyd could have dodged the topic. But when the question came at a season-ticket holders event, he could not sugar coat or spin the people who keep the club afloat.

“It’s really interesting because we’ve now got our contracting spreadsheet out to about the 2025-26 season,” Boyd explained. “We’ve even got some young boys’ names in the academy for three or four years’ time so we’re trying to predict where the holes are going to be and where we need to fill them if people retire or move on.”

Leinster have been operating a similar recruitment drive as far back as my teenage years. I remember the summer camps.

Catching up

The English clubs are catching up. It won’t be long before a few of them – with the right coaching and joined-up thinking – start to rely less on the millions of pounds shelled out for an All Black like Owen Franks (Northampton) or Fijian genius like Semi Radradra (Bristol).

“The Saints team of this season and next season won’t be vastly different,” said Boyd – the 61-year-old Kiwi who has the Saints playing brilliant possession rugby from the Wellington school of thought. “We will continue to stick to a policy of young and English, and you will see that we’ve avoided the temptation this year of chasing anyone with a big name, high profile and expensive ticket.

“Because what’s going to happen with all of these youngsters is that they’re going to come up. We’re getting reasonably good value out of them at the moment because they’re in their first contracts, but in four years’ time it’s going to be a big job to keep them all.

“We’re going to have to be really smart about how we keep those because I’m convinced that if we can keep the spine of this team together from young, English, local boys, that’s the best place we can come from.”

From an Irish perspective this is a worrying sign of the times. The secret is out.

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