CJ luxury an indulgence we can't afford
OF the 60 nominees for the Heineken Cup dream team, the most remarkable name belonged to Leinster. It was not Brian O'Driscoll or Jamie Heaslip, although both were included among a healthy selection of 14 Irishmen, but an Australian who spent less than a year with the Irish province.
And yet no one would quibble with Rocky Elsom's name being on that list given the flanker's extraordinary influence on Leinster's Heineken Cup win last season. Of all the overseas players to draw an Irish wage over the years, Elsom stands apart as the perfect signing.
Yes, he was an expensive acquisition, his one-season deal reputed to be worth around €400,000, but Leinster got a maximum return on their investment. Yes, his automatic selection in the Leinster back-row limited the game time of developing Irish flankers Sean O'Brien and Kevin McLaughlin, but this was counter-balanced by his profound influence on the players around him.
It is not stretching things to say that Leinster would not have won their European title without Elsom and for a team that had always been considered mentally brittle, the Wallaby's legacy was highly significant.
When he made his inevitable return to Australia to lead a fast-improving Wallaby side towards the next World Cup, Elsom left with his reputation enhanced and the gratitude of Leinster rugby ringing in his ears.
CJ van der Linde, the province's other major overseas investment of the past few seasons, is unlikely to receive the same endorsement when he returns to South Africa at the end of this season.
His time in Ireland has been dogged by injury, which obviously was not part of the plan for either party, but the Springbok prop has not exerted anything like Elsom's influence when he has, intermittently, taken to the field.
Regardless of how they fare in the knockout stages of this season's Heineken Cup, Leinster coach Michael Cheika is another Australian set to leave the province with the hearty thanks of his Irish employers and reputation much enhanced.
Cheika's brief was not to recruit players and select teams that further Ireland's prospects of meaningful achievement at the World Cup and he cannot be faulted for operating within the existing parameters regarding overseas recruitment.
However, while Elsom was a stunning success, Van der Linde was an unnecessary luxury and a player whose presence has actively hindered the plans of Ireland coach Declan Kidney looking ahead to New Zealand 2011. Cian Healy has graduated from Leinster to Ireland in the last 12 months and has handled the step-up extremely well.
Young players talk about the value of drawing from the experience of established, quality internationals such as Van der Linde, but no player would argue with the contention that there is no substitute for time on the pitch and Healy would not be where he is today were it not for Van der Linde's injury affording him a place in Leinster's starting team last season.
Healy is growing into the Ireland No 1 jersey with each outing but, at 22, in a position where experience is everything, the question is: how much further along the line would Healy be if Van der Linde had not been signed?
Ireland does not have a steady production line of quality props (a situation that is being addressed with the use of recognised scrum specialists such as Paul McCarthy to bring youngsters through) but Leinster already had a quality overseas prop in Stan Wright -- a player who has flourished under Cheika at tight and loose.
With only four professional outlets in Irish rugby, two overseas props on a province's books is one too many and in the final pool games of the Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup in January, we had the situation where, of the eight propping slots available, four were filled by non-Irish-qualified players (BJ Botha, Van der Linde, Wian du Preez and Robbie Morris).
The Leinster team for tonight's Magners League clash with Munster emphasises the point -- Wright and Van der Linde starting, Healy on the bench, no Mike Ross. One overseas prop per province is permissible, two is self-destructive from an Ireland point of view and must cause considerable mirth in the southern hemisphere as their players benefit (financially and psychologically) at the expense of would-be World Cup challengers.
Elsom unquestionably brought Irish rugby forward during his time with Leinster; Van der Linde has, and continues to, hinder its progress.