With 6 months to go until the Rugby World Cup, Ireland currently sits top of the World Rankings and top of the Six Nations leaderboard, winning their opening 3 matches of the campaign. Ireland has not lost a game since July 2022 in their first test match in New Zealand. Since the loss, they have beaten The All Blacks twice, World Champions South Africa, and ended France’s 13-game winning streak. There has never been a better time to be an Irish Rugby fan! But how did we get here?

How did a small island of 6.8 million people end up as the best team in the world?

Over the last decade, Irish Rugby has undergone a serious transformation under the watchful eye of David Nucifora, who was appointed Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) High-Performance Director in 2014. Nucifora has advocated for the reliance upon the fee-paying school system as a feeder system for Irish Rugby, and this exclusionary system has come under recent criticism.

Leinster back-row Scott Penny was called up to a wider Ireland Squad in February, sparking controversy amongst Munster and Ulster fans. Penny has played just 10 minutes of elite-level European Rugby in this year’s Heineken Champions Cup and is considered as Leinster’s third-choice flanker.

Gavin Coombes on the other hand, also plays in the back row, except for Munster. He is a regular starter for the province and has played 66 times since his debut in 2018. Coombes has played multiple games at the top level of provincial rugby, but his involvement in the Irish setup has been minimal.

Similarly, Ulster’s Nick Timoney is a regular starter and is Ulster’s first-choice flanker. Timoney has played 119 times for Ulster since 2017, a figure which more than doubles Penny’s involvements. Timoney has been involved just three times for Ireland, yet he has made his impact when called upon, scoring three tries. His exclusion from the Ireland squad in place of Penny has certainly raised a few eyebrows.

Whilst there can no doubting Scott Penny’s abilities, it is hard to justify his inclusion in the Ireland squad considering his lack of game-time at the highest level. Competition in the Leinster Squad is fierce, particularly in the back row, considering players such as Josh Van der Flier, Caelan Doris, Jack Conan, Will Connors, Max Deegan and Rhys Ruddock are all potential options for the province. Arguably, Penny is at the bottom of this food chain, and as a result, has had limited minutes in the biggest games.

Rugby Flags Leinster
Competition in the Leinster Squad is fierce, particularly in the back-row…

From a Munster and Ulster perspective, Penny’s inclusion to the squad at the detriment of Coombes or Timoney is disheartening considering their current form and bank of experience. The question arises, what more can they do to get into this Ireland team?

Scott Penny’s Ireland call-up is by no means an isolated incident, rather it has resurfaced the conversation about Leinster’s dominance in the United Rugby Championship over the last number of years, and thus the Ireland Squad.

By analysing Ireland’s starting line-up over their last 9 games, on average, 10 of the 15 starting positions are filled by Leinster players, leaving just 5 spots for players from Munster, Ulster and Connacht. This statistic is not a reflection of selector bias, as there can be no doubting Leinster’s superiority, but it speaks to the wider question of why Leinster are so dominant and how over the past decade they have dominated the build-up of Irish Rugby teams.

Of the 15 players that took to the field in the third test between New Zealand and Ireland in the Summer of 2022, 11 play for Leinster, and 8 (53%) are graduates of fee-paying secondary schools. This statistic is not representative of the wider population, however, as it is estimated that as little as 6.5% attend such schools. The team slogan, ‘Team of Us’ hardly seems to apply here!

The IRFU’s Private School Problem:

Since David Nucifora took over as Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) High-Performance Director in 2014, there has been a fundamental shift in the attitudes towards fee-paying secondary schools and their role in producing top-level athletes. Nowadays, schools such as Blackrock College St Michael’s, Clongowes and Newbridge are leading the field in player development from a young age, and are providing the IRFU with freakish athletes straight out of school.

Nucifora has made it the IRFU’s strategy to rely on the fee-paying schools of South Dublin to produce the next crop of Irish Rugby superstars, with the union benefitting from a series of essentially private academies in the form of schools. The old-fashioned system of academies and ‘A’ Teams seems to be heading out of the door in favour of this Private School Model, and whilst this suits Leinster and Irish Rugby, it is excluding the majority of the population who play in Munster, Ulster and Connacht.

David Nucifora does deserve a lot of credit for the growth of Irish Rugby since he took over in 2014, but at what cost? Penny’s call-up to the Ireland squad last month is the latest example of how the fee-paying school system is directly influencing Irish Rugby.

“Rugby should be a sport that is accessible to everyone”

The future of Irish Rugby looks bright, with the Under 20 team playing some excellent rugby over recent weeks. Similarly, players such as Hugo Keenan, Caelan Doris, Dan Sheehan and Ronan Kelleher are all young, with plenty of time to develop even further. Players further down the pipeline such as Jimmy O’Brien, Harry Byrne, Will Connors and Ryan Baird are all promising for the future, but can you guess where they went to school?

UCD Rugby Daffodil Day Kick

The IRFU’s dependence on the fee-paying school system runs a serious risk of excluding players from Munster, Ulster and Connacht, where this schooling system is rarely used. In Northern Ireland for example, there are fewer than five schools that adopt this approach, highlighting the reliance on the Ulster academy system.

Rugby should be a sport that is accessible to everyone, not just to those who have the luxury of attending private schools in South Dublin. The average cost of the main fee-paying schools that feed into Irish Rugby is €7,211 and is thus a serious barrier to inclusion.

So, whilst Ireland is currently ranked first in the world in Rugby, is it worth excluding the majority of the country?

‘Team of Us’? Hardly.

Oisin Gaffey – Football Correspondent