The Well Fair Program

The IRFU puts a lot of store in its player welfare programme, whereby its international players are sheltered from potential burnout by a strict regimen limiting the number of games they play per season.  The players seem to feel looked after, and it’s probably helped in keeping a couple of leading lights in the country when they had tempting offers from French clubs.  However, it looks increasingly like the current system is coming under pressure from a couple of sides, and it may be time for a re-think.

Brendan Fanning’s hugely enlightening recent article shone a light on the failings of the current system.  In short, the IRFU has appointed itself as guardians of player fitness but has little credibility in the role, having been without a head of fitness and conditioning for 14 months after Phillip Morrow left (they have finally made the replacement, with South African Dave Clark coming into the role).  Little wonder that the provinces see themselves as in a much better position to determine who is fit to play and when.  For a start, they have access to the players on a weekly basis.  The other factor is Declan Kidney entering the last year of his contract, because it is he, rather than any overseer who has to negotiate with the provinces.  Anyone remember the video Bill Clinton made of himself washing his car to demonstrate how little was achievable in one’s last year of office?  Or the season Alex Ferguson had announced would be his last?  Once everyone knows you’re leaving, it’s hard to maintain the influence you once had.  Kidney may not believe he’s finished yet, but it looks increasingly like he’s on the last lap.

Last week’s noises from the English and French Leagues about merit-based qualification for the Heineken Cup put further pressure on the current system; or at least they will do further down the line.  The Pro12 is the puppy that gets kicked around under today’s regime.  The provinces focus on the Heineken Cup and use the league matches as the rest periods demanded by the IRFU.  The likes of Sexton, Ferris and O’Connell can play as little as five or six of the twenty-two league games.  It relegates the Pro12 to a B-team competition.  But if, as the English and French are demanding, a top six position were required to ensure Heineken Cup rugby the following season, it would force the IRFU to review how it approaches the league.  With European rugby on the line, surely Sexton and co. would be pressed into action a little more often.   Plus this gives grist to the English and French drum-banging about how unfair life is.

It also must be asked just how valuable the player welfare rules are in their current guise in today’s game.  Back in the mid-noughties, when Ireland had a dozen or so test class players and an ingrained Test XV, it made evident sense to ensure the golden-thighed greats were protected from over-exposure with their provinces.  But in today’s world, where rugby is a 22-man game, injuries are frequent and squads are designed to cope, it’s not certain it’s as essential as it once was.  Ireland have a much wider net of players who could play test rugby today.  Forty-six players played for the national team last season.  All the provinces have reasonable squad depth and would be inclined to rotate their players in any case, if left to their own devices a little more.

Furthermore, the awarding of IRFU centralised contracts is increasingly muddy and strange looking.  A cursory glance over the list of players on central contracts (such as it is; the IRFU does not publish one, but annuonces the awarding of new deals) reveals that ageing fringe players like Donncha O’Callaghan, Paddy Wallace and Ronan O’Gara have them, but Sean O’Brien does not.  The unfortunate Denis Leamy managed to get a new one earlier this year despite being on the verge on retirement – who made this decision and why? At times it looks as if central contracts are thank-yous for years of commendable service, rather than attempts to lock down the best players.

It’s resulted in some bizarre situations.  Season before last, Ulster were known to be unhappy with having a strict game-time allotment for Paddy Wallace, only to see him play a handful of minutes in three substitute appearances in the Six Nations.  Last season, O’Gara was similarly coddled under IRFU rules, but featured only off the bench for Ireland in the spring.  When the Heineken Cup quarter-final came around he was ring rusty.  And don’t think that match-time rules are applied only to centrally contracted players.  It appears that the IRFU applies these to those contracted with their province, too.

One of the more incredulous elements of pre-season newsflow is that the IRFU have insisted that Connacht’s four tourists in New Zealand (Loughney, Duffy, Wilkinson and McCarthy) have a delayed pre-season and will not be available for early rounds of fixtures.  Loughney was the only one of the four to get on the pitch, with 20 minutes off the bench in the first test.  None of the four are ever likely to be more than fringe players with Ireland anyway, but Connacht – their squad permanently stretched to breaking point as it is – will have to start without four of their best players because of the tiring demands of the Shotover Jet in Queenstown.  It looks like Team Deccie are flexing their muscles and showing the provinces who’s boss.

For sure, the players need to be looked after, and imposing ceilings on match time makes sense.  But the current rules are just too rigid in their appliction.  Like much else in the national set-up at the moment, it’s a system that’s served Ireland well, but one looking increasingly behind the times.

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18 Comments

  1. Giuseppe

     /  August 27, 2012

    I wouldn’t disagree with most of what you said but I was just thinking out loud about the awarding of new contracts to the likes of Leamy. Maybe new contracts for guys like him (injured and facing an uncertain future at the time) had to do with his insurance settlement for injury forced retirement? Bigger/better contract means bigger payout?

    Just a thought.

    • An interesting thought, but surely multinational insurance companies have contracts in place that aren’t so easily gamed like that?

      • Giuseppe

         /  August 27, 2012

        You’d imagine so anyway. I’m just speculating (with a hangover) maybe the size of the payout has to do with the contract you’re on when you get injured.

  2. Oh the plagiarism of the Connacht section! 🙂 Not 100% sure the players are definitely being held out, though, but it’s quite possible.

    One solution to the ridiculously unbalanced nature to ‘player management’ would be to introduce a minimum number of games (or minutes) per player as well as a maximum, to keep them fresh but also match ready. This way players that aren’t being used by the national team get to feed back those extra minutes into their provinces.

    I see that the IRFU, Ulster and Leinster use GPS tracking from the same company. I don’t know if Munster have something similar, but I’m pretty sure Connacht do not. The GPS technology is an excellent way to track player fitness and with proper analysis can reduce soft tissue damage by making sure players aren’t overworked.

    I hate to make assumptions where the IRFU are concerned, but I would hope that because the same company is used this means the GPS data collated by the IRFU are shared with Ulster & Leinster and vice versa. This way there is a truer sense of player health analysis and both national team and province can react accordingly where needed.

    But until the IRFU roll this technology out across all 4 provinces then they’re only doing a half hearted attempt and only looking modern for the sake of it.

  3. Ryan got a central contract in March.

  4. HenryFitz

     /  August 27, 2012

    Central contracts are a relic of the old EOS system. They’re a bit like merit badges. In practice, the IRFU, as the ultimate employer, has the same control over provincial players as they do over international players. The central contract is a lucrative formality.

    Players do need a proper pre-season, and the IRFU’s insistence on a 6 week minimum rest and conditioning program doesn’t seem outlandish to me. Certainly the squad players put in a similar shift before the first pre-season game.

    • That’s how it looks to us too, Henry. It’s a hard one to get your fingers around, as the IRFU doesn’t really provide any clarity to what it all means. And if the IRFU is ultimately the employer anyway, which they are, how does that explain the Luke Fitzgerald contract saga? What’s the difference betwen the IRFU contract that was pulled away and the one he signed with Leinster?

      • There’s a lot in this article…difficult to know where to start with comments.

        As I understand it, each province has a pot to pay their players from, which is earned mostly through gate receipts. IRFU contracts are paid from outside this pot so if e.g. (back in the day) Hayes and Horan are centrally contracted, Munster don’t have to dip into their pot to pay quality front rows. If Hayes and Horan lose their central contracts then Munster have to find props from somewhere and pay them from provincial coffers. This reduces the amount available to pay high profile imports/others. Central contracts are beneficial to the provinces because although you see less of your players, you don’t have to pay the bulk of their wages.

    • HenryFitz

       /  August 28, 2012

      My understanding of the situation is that the Provinces spend about €2 – 2.5m of their own money on their playing squads, with the IRFU supplying €3-4m directly towards the playing budget, and €1m – €3m indirectly for the centrally contracted players. This is mostly guesswork based on the €28.5m the IRFU spend on players and management, plus a report in the Examiner which stated that Munster spent €2.4m on their playing squad in 2010/2011. I don’t know whether the IRFU try to equalise the budgets taking into account the international contracts, or whether they use the central contracts as an extra incentive for the provinces to produce international players who will then essentially be off the books. As the Mole says, it’s probably the latter.

  5. Thanks Mole, that makes sense,

  6. According to the Independent today:

    “Elwood is helped by the availability of Irish squad members Ronan Loughney, Gavin Duffy and Mike McCarthy, although loosehead prop Brett Wilkinson will sit this one out under the player welfare management plan.”

    Good to know. Looks like Eric’s powers of persuasion and “I might get angry” face have prevailed a little. Although resting Wilkinson who didn’t play a single minute in NZ seems strange, but he did travel with a slight strain.

    • Thanks for that ummm,. Good to see common sense and some flexibility is being applied, which is all we’re asking for really.

  7. Ben

     /  August 28, 2012

    I’m going to take the contrary view….

    This comes up at the start of every season recently but never at the end when for example Leinster were able to call on almost all their international players for crucial games. Those players were fit and well rested (as they often say in interviews).

    The current system allows for them to play 6 games in any block of 8 with dialogue between national and provincial coaches on any particular priority e.g game time for a tighthead prop or trying a guy in a position where cover is needed.

    Equally it allows younger players in the province to stake a claim e.g. Madigan can get an extended run with Leinster in the absence of Sexton for 2 or 3 games at the start and in international windows.

    That means that not only does it help player welfare but encourages player development.

    • Thanks Ben, plenty of valid opinion in there and we wouldn’t disagree with you. We’re in favour of looking after the players and imposing ceilings on their match time, as we say in the piece, all we’re asking is that the system is applied with common sense. Our concern is that with the provinces outperforming the national team, the powers that be are looking to transfer that success by hampering the provinces. It’s almost as if the IRFU have decided there’s a fixed pool of good results available and it has to be shifted from the provinces to Team Ireland.

  8. radge fan

     /  August 30, 2012

    Too much paranoia about who has central contracts and who has not. It hasn’t prevented Peter Stringer or Tomas O’Leary being dropped for a non-contracted player and it hasn’t prevented Gordon D’Arcy being selected ahead of Paddy Wallace in the past. D’Arcy contract has now been restored to him.

    I don’t get the complaints about Leamy getting one. When the IRFU look after those players it makes other players who want to take their place think twice about leaving to go to somewhere else if they know that they will be taken care of by the IRFU. Its not as if Leamy didn’t put his body on the line for both Ireland and Munster.

    From what I can see, the arrangement about gametime is fairly flexible. For instance, Donncha O’Callaghan is playing this weekend because he didn’t play 3 full internationals against NZ like Donncha Ryan did. Peter O’Mahony is being rested (as a young player). Dec Fitzpatrick has been playing a fair bit (but he played very little last season), so its not just one rule fits all.

    There was an interesting article in the Sunday Times last Sunday where Peter O’Reilly compared the access that Warren Gatland had to what Kidney has. Players are pulled 13 days before every international Test (and are thrown a few pennnies for it). Simon Easterby said he has had 3 days to prepare teams for a Heineken Cup match. No wonder they don’t do well in the HCup.

    It seems that the WRU poor all their spare cash into Rugby Sevens as well. They certainly are not putting anything into the Regions like what the IRFU are.

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