Mike McCarthy has signed for Leinster for next season, in what’s bound to be a controversial and emotion-stirring move. On the surface it looks like Ireland’s biggest and most successful province has gone poaching the best player from the weakest and least resourced, which doesn’t look very nice, but it’s worth taking some time to see if that is the whole story.
First of all, it’s necessary to say McCarthy is a terrific signing for Leinster. He’s exactly what they’ve been looking for to fill the Nathan Hines-shaped void in their second row. He’s a superb footballer, he’s tough, he’s experienced, he’s in his prime, he’s a tighthead-side scrummager and he’s really, really, ridiculously good looking (in fact, maybe he’s more of a replacement for Trevor Hogan than Nathan Hines).
But is it fair game for Leinster to go and take him off Connacht? First of all, Mike McCarthy is out of contract at the end of the season, so he is not bound to Connacht, and is entitled to move to any other team that chooses to offer terms – he’s a free agent. Secondly, he is (naturally) entitled to get the best deal for himself and his career. He’s now an established international player and his stock has never been higher – playing with Leinster represents a chance to compete for silverware and enhance his international credentials. Connacht are having a good season and are improving, but there is no guarantee they’ll be in the Heineken Cup next year – and, at any rate, Connacht players have not been popular under the present international management – moving to Leinster has something of an international insurance policy about it.
Is it fair to compare McCarthy’s move to the experience of Carr, Hagan and to a lesser extent Cronin since making the move from west to east? Well, McCarthy will be going to Leinster as a first team player, and an important one at that – the other three came as backup (at best), with an understanding that further development was required. The media coverage of Carr, Hagan and Cronin’s Leinster careers has at times been bewlidering, painting them as hopeless backups who would have been better staying put. Yet Cronin gets regular match-time and has been a success with Leinster. Admittedly, Carr and Hagan have not – but they have hardly helped themselves by performing so poorly. Leinster currently have an outside-back injury crisis – had Fionn Carr shown any sort of reliability or try-scoring form he would be starting against Clermont this weekend. But he hasn’t, so he isn’t.
So it checks out on the player’s side, but what about the big meanies from Dublin 4? Have they behaved appropriately? Judging by Connacht’s press release, they appear to think not.
But to answer this, you have to look at the structure of Irish rugby. The provinces are in active competition with one another, not collaboration. You can argue the rights and wrongs of this, but that being the playing field, Leinster are perfectly entitled to offer terms to an out-of-contract player. It appears this is something the IRFU are trying to fix, and according to Peter O’Reilly’s recent scoops, the newly appointed Director of Rugby will be responsible for managing the spread of talent among the provinces and increase the levels of co-operation between them. This can only be good for Connacht; the IRFU might encourage the likes of Lewis Stevenson or Ian Nagle to travel West were it in place now.
It’s worth going back in time to when Nathan Hines did leave Leinster – Munster at the time had the top 4 Irish second rows in the country, judging by the international pecking order – Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Micko and Donnacha Ryan were the second row forwards selected for the 2010 November internationals. If there was an overarching Pro Rugby Tsar, he would probably have asked Ryan (4th in the Munster pecking order) to move to Leinster to replace Hines. So if Ryan were playing for Leinster now, McCarthy might not be moving!
The IRFU centrally contracts some players, and from what we can gather from this shadowy process, encourages them to locate where they have the best chance of first-team rugby, but McCarthy does not appear to have been offered a central contract. He’s been offered terms by Leinster rugby, so the IRFU (who Connacht say they tried to recruit to keep the player at Connacht) probably couldn’t do an awful lot. Unfortunately for Connacht, they probably weren’t that pushed either, and presumably have no qualms about McCarthy playing at the highest level, where he will be a guaranteed starter. Connacht have always been under-resourced by the IRFU, and Leinster probably know that if they go fishing, they will catch. That is unfortunate, but it is the system that is in place –for now at least – it’s the IRFU who choose to under-resource Connacht.
So while one does feel for Connacht in losing a player that they have developed and brought to prominence, there is movement in the other direction. Connacht were the beneficieries of Leinster’s scouting when they signed sturdy tighthead prop Nathan White this summer. It would be no surprise to see a couple of Leinster’s younger players pitch up in the west next season (Jordi Murphy for example), and perhaps one or two of those signed from Connacht in the last couple of seasons will return there.
We don’t expect Connacht fans to be happy about the news. Munster fans will probably be even more unhappy, but should probably ask themselves how they’d feel if David MacSharry signed for them tomorrow. For Leinster fans, the news is massive, going a long way to shore up what looked a significant hole in their squad.