On Monday, Ulster scrum-half John Cooney was called into Ireland camp for this weekend’s Six Nations visit of Wales.
Cooney may only be in as cover for Luke McGrath, who injured his knee during Leinster’s win over the Scarlets on Saturday, but in truth, he was unlucky not to be considered among those selected when Joe Schmidt named his original 36-man squad in January.
The 27-year-old has been a revelation at Ulster this season and he’s filled the boots of Ruan Pienaar about as well as anyone could have hoped for.
His 27-point haul against Harlequins earlier this season stands up there among the very best performances by any Irish player from the current campaign, but it was not enough to warrant selection in Schmidt’s squad, with the New Zealander instead opting for McGrath, Conor Murray and Kieran Marmion as his three halfbacks.
Murray is by some distance Ireland’s best scrum-half, with McGrath, Marmion and Cooney all essentially fighting to be his assistant, but it’s a bench race that is tighter than most of the other competition for reserve places within this Irish squad.
Cooney had caught the eye of Joe Schmidt even before his move to Belfast after making his international debut against Japan on last year’s summer tour, and while he may be the only starting alternative to McGrath, he has undoubtedly benefited from a move north after spending most of his time at Connacht behind Marmion.
Cooney is now one of four players in the current Ireland squad that have switched provinces with Andrew Conway, Ian Keatley and Sean Cronin all moving on from their original clubs to establish themselves as internationals elsewhere, while Leinster flanker Jordi Murphy is set to move to Ulster next season in a bid for increased gametime.
Cooney started his career at Leinster before moving to Connacht and then Ulster at the start of this season, and a change of clubs has allowed him to thrive at the Kingspan where he otherwise would have continued to sit behind Marmion at Connacht as opposed to competing against him.
Moving to Ulster has allowed Cooney to develop as a player and receive more time on the pitch, and while a change of scenery has seemingly had little impact in moving up in Joe Schmidt’s scrum-half pecking order, for others, it has allowed them the opportunity to become internationals when they were on the peripheries of their own club sides.
Conway, Cronin, Murphy and Keatley may not be first-choice starters for Ireland but they are fully fledged internationals nonetheless. At one time or another, it was clear that these players were not even first, and in some cases second choice at their own clubs.
There are a number of Irish players in the current system that could benefit from a move elsewhere with Dave Kearney, Barry Daly, Joey Carbery, Peter Dooley, Ross Molony and John Andrew all springing to mind.
Some of the aforementioned may not necessarily start at other provinces, but for some, with particular reference to Dooley and Molony, are talented players that are lacking opportunity rather than a lack of skills.
Competition in Irish Rugby has improved considerably under Schmidt, and while the national team is as deep as it ever has been, the knock on effect of depth is that it can sometimes stifle opportunities for young players trying to breakthrough.
If you’re Joey Carbery, do you sit and wait behind Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney/Jordan Larmour to get an opportunity? Or do you consider a club like Ulster were you could walk straight into the starting side at 10? It could be worth the consideration given that that’s where Schmidt sees his best position.
Carbery seems content to bide his time at Leinster, and the province will certainly want to keep a player like him within their ranks, but his situation has become a talent v opportunity battle and a scenario that’s hard to see him prospering from in the immediate future without serious injury to one of his competitors.
Irish players are unique in European Rugby in that they are so intensely tied to their provinces, which helps immensely when trying to develop culture, but for some players it makes more sense for them to move.
However, it doesn’t always work out for everyone. Cian Kelleher moved to Connacht from Leinster in the summer of 2016 and a mix of injuries and the departure of Pat Lam has made it difficult for him to find his feet at a side that were PRO12 champions only two seasons ago.
But for Cooney, Conway, Cronin and Keatley, it has given them an opportunity to at least chase international rugby which they have duly taken full advantage of through their own perseverance and effort.
Irish Rugby has unquestionably benefited from the success of their academies, but at Leinster in particular, the sheer volume of players has created a situation where some players are stuck behind internationals when they could have the potential to develop into internationals in their own right if given the opportunity.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and Joe Schmidt has made internationals out of players that are a lot more suited to primetime than garbage time.
It takes patience to wait for an opportunity. It takes balls to create one.