Rugby unites Ireland, but Ulster’s lack of representation is a growing problem

Rugby unites Ireland, but Ulster's lack of representation is a growing problem

The moment when the Ireland side confronted the All Blacks’ haka with a V-shaped march at Lansdowne Road in 1989 remains one of the most iconic images in Irish rugby, one of defiance, inspiration, and no little controversy.

Yet the snapshot in time also captures another story, one of a slow and worrying decline that represents a long-term risk to Ireland’s much-vaunted production line of talent that has underpinned Andy Farrell’s side’s mission to become the first nation in Six Nations history to win back-to-back Grand Slams.

A check of the line-up in that infamous ‘V’ on that November afternoon almost 35 years ago reveals that eight of the Ireland starting XV, including captain Willie Anderson, were Ulstermen: Phillip Rainey, Kenny Hooks, David Irwin, Keith Crossan in the backline; and four of the pack, Steve Smith, Jimmy McCoy, Anderson, and Philip Matthews.

The selection was a reflection of Ulster’s dominance of the Interprovincial Championships at the time. The northern province were crowned champions eight times between 1983 to 1994 and also shared the title twice, a run of success that led to the IRFU appointing Ulster’s head coach Jimmy Davidson to the Ireland job in 1987, a position he would hold for three years.

At the time Davidson was regarded as a radical visionary – he had famously coached Ulster to victory over the Wallabies’ Grand Slam side (they beat all four home nations during a tour of Britain and Ireland) at Ravenhill in 1984 – but he could not replicate his success with Ireland and Ulster would never again provide so many representatives to the national side for a major international.

What Davidson could not have known is that following his departure, Ulster’s status as a force in Irish rugby would begin to wane, a decline that this year led to the historic moment when the province did not provide any players for the first time for an Ireland matchday squad when Farrell’s side defeated France in Marseille.

It is almost certain that would have been repeated for the match against England at Twickenham before a bicep injury to James Ryan on Wednesday that opened the door for Ulster captain Iain Henderson to be named on the bench.

“It is disappointing but to be honest, I wasn’t surprised,” David Irwin admits, referring to the Marseille selection. Irwin captained Ulster from 1983 to 1990, and won 25 caps for Ireland and played in three Tests for the Lions on the tour of New Zealand in 1983.

“You would have struggled to find a player [from Ulster] that deserved to be in the squad. Success breeds success. If your province is flying high, you are going to get more in the Ireland set-up.”

Irwin still shares a WhatsApp group with his provincial team-mates, affectionately known as ‘80s warriors’ and they have collectively lamented the province’s demise.

“In my day people were trying to get out of the province for obvious reasons with the Troubles going on,” said Irwin, who also became the province’s team doctor after his playing days ended. “We wanted to do well for Ulster to put Ulster on the map in a good way. I know as a captain I felt a responsibility to promote Ulster on the world stage. We were a tight group and we had a good core of young players coming through at Queen’s University and some of the other clubs. I would say the talent is always there, it is about getting the best out of that talent and the style of play to suit that talent, with the right coaching.”

Brain drain caused by Troubles costing dearly

Ulster’s demise has not been linear and involves a multitude of factors complex enough to produce a thesis, including the brain drain caused by the Troubles, tax variations between Northern Ireland and the Republic and Dublin’s economic rise, the decline of extracurricular activities in state schools and the number of teachers prepared to commit to working outside their normal hours, over-reliance in overseas talent and at times poor management and coaching.

Ten years after the New Zealand game, Ulster became the first Irish province to win the European Cup, the province has also continued their rich tradition of producing British and Irish Lions (of the 10 Irish tour captains of the Lions, four have been Ulstermen).

There have been moments when the number of Ulster players in the national side have surged, such as 2005-06 and 2013-14, and periods where the province have been challenging for honours in both the URC and Champions Cup, reaching the final again in 2012. But a sole piece of silverware since 1999 – the Celtic League title in 2005 – is contrasted by first Munster’s European successes and now Leinster’s dominance over the past decade, even with some former Leinster players moving north.

Leinster’s imperious rise has been well-documented. With the private schools in Dublin investing in rugby programmes that are aligned at provincial level, the output of talent is phenomenal, supplying a national high-performance programme that rivals those in New Zealand and South Africa.

Schools rugby in Ulster in contrast remains strong and competitive at its best, and there remains a greater focus on winning the provincial schools’ cup than aligning with Ulster’s academy. The number of ‘tier one’ schools is declining to around six compared to 16 in Dublin, with increasing mismatches in fixtures with the big Dublin schools.

The increasing gap is reflected in the distribution of the IRFU’s national contracts (normally around 15), with 10 at Leinster to Ulster’s one, which creates a further financial imbalance as those salaries are paid directly by the national governing body. While over 40 per cent of all current professional contracts in Ireland are to players from Leinster.

For all of the headline-grabbing success of Farrell’s side, Ulster’s slide has been recognised as a problem that must be addressed, both at provincial and national level. Inconsistent results this season led to the dismissal of Dan McFarland as head coach and Richie Murphy, the current Ireland Under-20s coach, is to take charge on an interim basis at the end of the Six Nations.

Bryn Cunningham, the province’s current head of operations, is also set to move into a more ‘hands-on’ general manager position. Cunningham is in the process of completing a pathway review, which could result in greater investment in coaching in schools if there is greater buy-in to a more aligned programme. Cunningham does not see the answer in Ulster becoming a testing ground for the overspill of Leinster talent, but one to maintain its identity and developing home grown players, all which will require a change of mindset.

“I think there has to be a little bit of a change of focus, including talking about winning things too much,” Cunningham said. “I think a lot of the time it puts undue expectation and pressure and is probably unfair in the sense that we’re not in that space, we don’t operate in the same market as a huge number of other teams within Europe in particular and certainly not with Leinster either.

“Ultimately, we want our own group of players to come through and start to create a stronger identity within the group and how to do that is by our stakeholders and supporters.

“There are three main principles that I’m trying to impart on the squad right now that I feel are really important – enjoyment, energy and competitiveness. We also want to create a stronger connection with our supporters again, where they can see what we are about. We are not going to win every match but we are putting our bodies on the line all the time and look like a real team who are playing not just for each other but everyone else.

“We are also trying to build relationships with our schools and clubs so that there is a joined-up approach, participation can align itself to high performance as well with the same principles.”

Ulster rising up through under-20 ranks

There are green shoots. The Ireland Under-20s squad that took on England in Bath on Friday night included four Ulster players, and hopes are high about the future international potential of the likes of Harry Sheridan, David McCann, Jude Postlethwaite and James McNabney in the current Ulster squad.

The appointment of David Humphreys, Ulster’s European Cup-winning captain, as the IRFU’s high-performance director, will also bring a new focus to addressing the issues, but the answers have to come from within.

“Before we started winning in ’83, Leinster had dominated everything,” Irwin said. “Things do go in phases. We don’t have the same constant conveyor belt of talent that Leinster do. It will change but there are a lot of things to put right for the opportunity for that change.”

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