Leinster’s signing of Jordie Barrett is a coup but risks huge resentment from Irish rivals

Jordie Barrett – Leinster's signing of Jordie Barrett is a coup but risks huge resentment from Irish rivals
Jordie Barrett will play for Leinster from December 2024 until the end of next season - Getty Images/Trevor Collens

The sensational news that Jordie Barrett has signed a short-term deal with Leinster next season may be rightly regarded as a jaw-dropping coup, but it is fair to say that it has not been universally welcomed across Irish rugby circles.

‌Make no mistake. Barrett’s decision to move to Ireland is box office, a massive boon for both the club and for the reputation of the URC as a league.

‌Leinster have forged a strong long-standing relationship with New Zealand over the years, from the game-changing impact of former head coach Joe Schmidt to game-breakers such as Isa Nacewa and Brad Thorn and current Irish-qualified Kiwis James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park.

‌Yet as well-worn as the path may be, Barrett’s arrival – even if it is just for half a season – is, as one leading agent said on Tuesday, the biggest overseas signing in the history of professional rugby in Ireland.

‌Barrett, 27, is the younger brother of fellow All Blacks, Beauden and Scott, and has the ability to play across a Leinster backline that is already stacked with Ireland internationals.

‌He is anything but a player whose best days are behind him and who instead is looking to top up his pension. Jordie, with 57 caps already to his name, is the real deal.

‌Which explains in part why supporters of Leinster’s rivals are up in arms. The signing of South Africa’s two-time World Cup winner RG Snyman from Munster for next season had already caused considerable angst amongst the Thomond Park faithful.

‌The decision by Ronan O’Gara, the La Rochelle head coach, to base his side in his hometown of Cork ahead of their Champions Cup quarter-final last week stoked the fires between Munster and Leinster supporters, and O’Gara was even booed at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

‌But social media debates about which team Munster supporters wanted to win were merely a symptom of the growing sense among the other Irish provinces that Leinster are leaving them behind in their wake, underscoring their status as European galacticos.

‌At the heart of the issue is money, and a degree of envy. Leinster’s ability to create a world class high-performance development pathway that rivals the best in New Zealand and South Africa. With the private schools in Dublin investing in rugby programmes that are aligned at provincial level, the output of talent has been phenomenal, over 40 per cent of all current professional contracts in Ireland are to players from Leinster and many from just a couple of schools.

‌This success has bred success. With more players moving on to national contracts paid for directly by the IRFU, it has enabled the province to cash in more profitably on their success on and off the field, building a war chest that can be further invested in youth development, and to acquire world class overseas talent.

‌That Barrett’s signing was announced just hours after it was confirmed that Ireland hooker Dan Sheehan had become Leinster’s 10th centrally contracted player (out of 15) is unlikely to have been without significance.

‌This ever-increasing upward spiral is seen as coming at the expense of others.

‌Ulster, who have been beset by financial problems and sacked their head coach and chief executive, have just one player on a national contract and recently announced that their one world class overseas signing, Steven Kitshoff would be returning to South Africa after just one season while Billy Burns is to join Munster next season.

‌Munster, who were once such a dominant force in Ireland that they attracted support from within Leinster known as ‘Lunsters’ have found it arguably more frustrating to fall behind the Dublin 4 powerhouse.

‌Former Munster, Ireland and Lions lock Donncha O’Callaghan highlighted the issue in December when he questioned the IRFU’s funding model and spoke of his surprise that Snyman’s move to Leinster had been signed off by the governing body’s performance director David Nucifora.

‌Munster head coach Graham Rowntree now faces the potential complication of losing Antoine Frisch because of IRFU’s foreign player policy if he is capped by France, which raises another frustration about the Barrett signing within Leinster’s rivals.

‌In contrast to the RFU’s relationship with the Premiership clubs, in Ireland there is a strict policy on the signing non-Irish qualified players, including not having more than one in each position.

‌That at times has led to controversy, such as when Ruan Pienaar had to be released by Ulster as Leinster were signing Gibson-Park, who was at time classed as an overseas player before he qualified through residency, and some are questioning which position Barrett has been signed as, given that Munster already have a New Zealand centre in Alex Nankivell.

‌The IRFU’s incoming performance director, David Humphreys, will know that the issues being aired by frustrated supporters are more than just founded in envy of Leinster’s success.

‌Irish rugby’s success over the last two decades has been founded on its centrally controlled system that has punched above its weight because of the respective strengths of its four provinces.

‌With an Ireland team already dominated by Leinster players, there is already a recognition that it is not a healthy position to be over-reliant on one club. Barrett’s signing has, in a sense, crystalised that sentiment.

‌Which makes his signing all the more intriguing, and potentially more impactful, than just simply what his dancing feet can bring on the pitch for Leinster for six months next season.

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