Conor O'Shea: Exposure to other cultures has made our players and coaches better
In England there has been a furore over the non-selection of the last two European Rugby players of the season, Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon, in their Rugby World Cup training squad. They both ply their trade in France.
Pundits maintain that Stuart Lancaster should have exercised the exceptional circumstance clause in picking players from overseas but in doing so he would have opened the floodgates and a short-term selection would have killed English rugby further down the line.
When people argue against this policy, and the non-selection of those two players, I point them towards the success of Irish rugby given our relative playing numbers. When Ireland travel to the World Cup it will be with a squad made up entirely of home-based players now that Johnny Sexton is coming back from Racing Metro to Leinster after two years in Paris. This didn’t happen overnight and the IRFU have had to work hard to keep our top players playing at home. A huge number of players — myself included — went to England to play at the advent of professionalism. The London Irish team alone had Victor Costello, Jeremy Davidson, Gabriel Fulcher, Niall Hogan, Mark McCall, David Humphreys, Niall Woods just to name a few. There was a time that the national squad sessions were held at the ALSAA centre beside Dublin Airport because it was so convenient to those flying in from England. As Irish rugby grew, the provinces and the national side became stronger and players returned home.
The IRFU hastened this return at the time, not by stating a policy of selecting home-based players only but you understood that if it was even a 40/60 call it would go to the home-based player and quite rightly. The balance that has to be struck in any walk of life or business is to ensure you don’t become too insular and you expose yourself to different ways and cultures whilst retaining your identity. Sexton will return better for his experience in France, not necessarily because the standard of rugby is better but because of the life experiences and there is no doubt that Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen learnt from their time at the Leicester Tigers and Eoin Reddan from his at Wasps.
Players and coaches alike need to be fresh and enthused and that can be done through your recruitment — look at the impact of players like Ruan Pienaar at Ulster or Isa Nacewa at Leinster — or by the coaches you pick, Michael Cheika or Joe Schmidt for instance.
Everything in life is about balance and different people will take different pathways, none are necessarily right but it has to be right for the individual. Take the example of Ronan O’Gara going to Racing Metro. The easy thing for Ronan would have been to stay with his home province of Munster in some capacity and I have no doubt we will see him there or somewhere in the Irish system very soon but he will benefit from moving out of his comfort zone.
This development and exposure is true whatever sport or business you are in. Look at Tommy Walsh at 27 coming back from Australia and back playing with Kerry. He will have learnt from his time with St Kilda or in Sydney, and he will bring that to the Kerry team.
I am sure when the powers that be look back and reflect on the job they have done they will do so with pride but they will remain conscious that they cannot stand still and will be looking at how they can make the pathway better.
Are there players getting blocked from progressing from their schools to academy and ultimately into their senior teams that would benefit from a stint overseas? All these years later, and reflecting on those sessions at the ALSAA sports grounds, you have to think that the stake that was put in the ground to have players playing in Ireland was brave even though it seems so straightforward with hindsight. England are facing the same clamour now and it takes a stronger man to have the long-term view than the short-term fix. We have to carefully plan for players and coaches to expose them to different cultures and ways of working, whether that is through importing or exporting the right people at the right time. A free-for-all and your system could be lost forever. Look at the French Top 14 compared to the French national side.
In the end you can say that money talks but it only talks when the structure allows it. In Ireland, as we head into World Cup mode, we are lucky to have built a system we control and we cannot afford to let that go.
Sunday Indo Sport