Faloon loses out in craze for imports
"I'm telling ye lads, Willie Faloon could be starting at open-side when we are back here for the World Cup next year."
That prophesy was uttered after a long night in Auckland and greeted by general ridicule. However, although the dogmatism was undoubtedly fuelled by liberal consumption of some excellent New Zealand white wine, we stand by it -- certainly on the basis of Faloon's playing ability.
The problem -- a perennial one for Irish rugby -- is game-time. When he runs out against Munster tonight, Faloon will be starting only his second game for Ulster this season -- his first since the opening Magners League clash with the Ospreys nearly two months ago.
Under the assumption that the provinces' primary role is the betterment of Irish rugby, with specific emphasis on the national side, that is a preposterous situation.
It has nothing to do with form or fitness but can rather be put down to Ulster's Afrikaner accommodation policy, with Pedrie Wannenburg and Robbie Diack starting six games each in the back-row.
Both South Africans are useful players but of no use to Ireland coach Declan Kidney less than 12 months out from New Zealand 2011. The situation is compounded by Chris Henry being asked to slot in at open-side when all evidence points to No 8 as being his best position.
Faloon is a serious talent and a natural open-side, which should be a godsend for Irish rugby. He comes from a family of horse trainers in Craigavon and breaking in animals is second nature to the 24-year-old, which is why Ulster Academy manager Gary Longwell reckons he such a force in contact.
However, aside from brute force, Faloon has the stepping and footballing skills inherent in the best open-sides and his battle with Munster's Niall Ronan should be compelling viewing tonight. So, Faloon gets his chance but, with Wannenburg and Diack both in the side, now it is Henry who starts on the bench.
Ulster have shelled out a lot of money for their South Africans and, understandably, they want a return on investment. The main argument in favour of bringing in overseas players is that they raise the level of performance of the Irish players around them and, by extension, increase the province's chances of success.
For Ulster, that means reaching the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for the first time since 1999 and overcoming a disastrous away record in all competitions.
Yet, when they faced their first major test of the season in Biarritz a couple of weeks ago, Ulster were beaten out the gate. Last weekend in Edinburgh, victory would have been just the type of justification for their South African contingent but Ulster threw away a game they could, and should, have won.
Irish rugby's most successful overseas signings -- Rocky Elsom, Doug Howlett, Isa Nacewa -- raise collective levels without impinging on the Ireland national team. The galling thing is when (as in the case of Springboks Jean de Villiers and CJ van der Linde) contribution does not match investment and Irish players lose out.
There is a tendency for Irish rugby to be in thrall to the southern hemisphere, a tradition that dates back to the 1990s when All-Ireland League clubs' members would knee-tremble at the sound of a Kiwi, Aussie or Afrikaner accent.
It led to silly money being flung at a steady stream of overseas bluffers who would fill their CVs with bulls**t and take mercenary advantage of Irish rugby's insecurity on a 'money for jam, mate' basis. In the internet era, resumes can no longer be spoofed and Ulster have acquired some genuine heavy-hitters but the overseas acquisitions need to be controlled.
Ireland has just four professional outlets for its playing talent -- that's only 60 starting slots each weekend -- and the sensible solution is to have at least 52 filled by Irishmen. That means no more than two non-Irish qualified players in each provincial starting 15.
The ideal scenario for Kidney when the Heineken Cup rolls around again in December is a starting Ulster back row of Stephen Ferris, Faloon and Henry but the chances of that happening are remote in the extreme.
As are the chances of Faloon going to the World Cup as long as South Africans continue to reduce his playing time. There are those of us who believe he is good enough for international rugby, there are others who say he is not up to that level -- it would be helpful if he was given the chance to resolve the debate.