Hugh Farrelly selects his Overseas XV currently plying their trade in Ireland -- and casts his eye back over the hits and the flops
Published 04/01/2011 | 05:00
IF 2009 was Rocky's year, then 2010 belonged to Isa. When it comes to overseas signings leaving an impact on Irish rugby, then Rocky Elsom's contribution over the course of one glorious Heineken Cup-winning season with Leinster will be nigh on impossible to top.
However, Nacewa's consistent excellence for the province in a variety of positions has made him a cult hero among Leinster supporters, while second-row Nathan Hines has also proved to be an excellent signing.
However one feels about an out-and-out Australian declaring for Scotland and then playing his club rugby in France and Ireland, there is no doubting Hines' commitment to whatever team he togs out for, and his physicality and experience were invaluable in Leinster's recent back-to-back clashes with Clermont.
Finally, hooker Richardt Strauss, a peripheral figure last season, has been sensational since Joe Schmidt took over, stepping up to the plate in a big way after John Fogarty was forced to retire.
In Munster, Sam Tuitupou and Wian du Preez were low-key but canny acquisitions. Tuitupou, the Tongan former All Black, may be somewhat one-dimensional in his bash-it-up style, but it has proved very effective and, once his disciplinary issues can be controlled, the centre is a significant asset.
Du Preez is a good, solid prop who goes about his job in a professional manner and has become a central figure in the pack in a relatively short time.
The jury is still out on Ulster's South African recruits, with Johann Muller looking the best buy, while the marquee signing Ruan Pienaar has disappointed at scrum-half thus far.
Connacht have, by necessity, been forced to shop in the budget aisles, but the likes of Niva Ta'auso, Ray Ofisa and Bernie Upton have proven to be good purchases.
The problem is, for every decent overseas signing, there are several duds to go with them, and while that fact is being established, Irish-qualified players are losing out on game time.
Then there are the 'special project' players signed with a view to qualifying for Ireland down the line. While the likes of New Zealander Isaac Boss and Australian Tom Court have been good servants to Irish rugby, something about this calculated qualification process sticks in the craw. There are those of us who would prefer if the provinces were made up only of Irish-qualified players and, while that would mean missing out on the glamour and ability of a Nacewa, Elsom or Doug Howlett, there is enough indigenous talent in this country to cater for four successful professional teams.
However, the guaranteed Irish policy is nothing but a pipe dream for the foreseeable future, so we thought we'd take a look at the current overseas crop in team selection format, as well as a glance back at the best of the non-Irish qualified to have plied their trade here -- plus some who were, eh, not quite all they were cracked up to be.
Current best: Isa Nacewa (Leinster)
One of the most accomplished overseas captures of all, Nacewa's time with Leinster has been characterised by flair and consistency, while his goal-kicking has been none too shabby either. A solitary cap for Fiji spoiled his All Blacks ambitions, but New Zealand's loss was Leinster's gain.
Greatest hit: Shaun Payne (Munster) -- The South African was a class act across the Munster backline until he moved into a management role.
And a miss ... Christian Cullen (Munster) -- Will be remembered as one of the finest No 15s to have played the game, but his spell with Munster was ruined by injury.
Current best: Doug Howlett (Munster)
Sharper than ever this season and, at 32, remains utterly committed to the Munster cause and one of the most potent finishers on the European circuit.
Greatest hit: Doug Howlett (Munster) -- See above; his time in Ireland has adorned a glittering career.
And a miss ... Clinton Huppert (Munster) -- Good old Clint, the Huppmeister reacts badly to less-than-complimentary summations of his time with Munster, but his swift relegation to the Shannon second team tells its own story.
Current best: Niva Ta'auso (Connacht)
Not a big-name signing but an extremely effective one, the Samoan brings pace and power to the Connacht midfield as well as fine footballing instincts.
Greatest hit: Rua Tipoki (Munster)
-- The former New Zealand Maori was a key figure in Munster's 2008 Heineken Cup triumph, defined by his hand-off and stepping ability. And who could forget his haka at Thomond?
And a miss ... Rob Dewey (Ulster) -- His decline from Scotland midfield enforcer to bit-part Ulster player was alarmingly swift. Released to Glasgow, for whom the injury-prone centre has only appeared 11 times in two seasons.
Current best: Sam Tuitupou (Munster)
Has his disciplinary issues but Tuitupou, with none of the clamour that greeted his predecessor Jean de Villiers, has proved to be an extremely effective signing. Squat, quick and powerful, the former All Black guarantees momentum and is a considerable obstacle in defence.
Greatest hit: Trevor Halstead (Munster) -- A star turn in Munster's march to their first European triumph in 2006, the South African always showed up for work and deserved his try in the final.
And a miss ... Jean de Villiers (Munster) -- Welcomed to Munster with a flurry of fawning adulation but, in terms of inspiring his province to glory, De Villiers was to Elsom what One Direction are to the Arctic Monkeys.
Current best: Simon Danielli (Ulster)
Has had his injury problems but Danielli is a quality international operator for Scotland and has been a success for Ulster since joining in 2007, as 25 tries in 58 appearances testifies.
Greatest hit: Isa Nacewa (Leinster)
-- A shoo-in for the greatest overseas team, slotting in on the left wing to accommodate Payne at full-back.
And a miss ... Anton Pitout (Munster)
-- The South African Sevens 'flyer' flew out of Munster following four Magners League games, one Heineken Cup game, no tries and no impact.
Current best: Paul Warwick (Munster)
The Australian has been a big hit in Irish rugby for Connacht and Munster. Ronan O'Gara has kept him out of his favoured out-half slot for big matches, but Warwick has produced some brilliant displays from full-back and will be missed when he moves to France.
Greatest hit: Felipe Contepomi (Leinster) -- There is an argument for David Holwell, the consistently efficient New Zealander who graced Leinster a few seasons back but, although Contepomi had his off-days, his good ones were mesmeric -- and there were plenty of good days.
And a miss ... Eddie Hekenui (Leinster)
-- Poor 'Eddie Heineken' always crops up in the disaster files, which is unfortunate because he had a bit of football about him. However, it was his flakiness which left the lasting memory.
Current best: Ruan Pienaar (Ulster) Only makes the team because of a lack of alternatives -- once Kiwi Isaac Boss is ruled out on the basis of his Irish qualification. No one questions Pienaar's quality but he has been a massive disappointment and an extremely poor investment.
Greatest hit: Chris Whitaker (Leinster) -- No Gareth Edwards or George Gregan (who he used to understudy for the Wallabies) but Whitaker was intelligent, streetwise and hugely brave in defence, a key cog in Leinster's 2009 Heineken Cup win.
And a miss ... Ruan Pienaar (Ulster) -- Needs to pick things up in 2011 or Irish ignominy beckons.
Current best: Heinke van der Merwe (Leinster)
Wian du Preez has been good for Munster, but the scrum difficulties against the Ospreys and Connacht count against him, while his fellow South African has been part of an impressive Leinster pack. A good, tough operator, van der Merwe provides excellent competition for Cian Healy at loose-head.
Greatest hit: Ollie Le Roux (Leinster) -- Leinster let the 'Big O' flow and were handsomely rewarded. Powerful in the scrum, exuberant in the loose and adored by supporters and colleagues.
And a miss ... Joeli Veitayaki (Ulster) -- Big as a house and just as mobile, they say that Craigavon's eateries mounted a protest after the giant Fijian prop was let go by UIster. Honourable mention to Juan Gomez, the Puma who was brutal for Leinster but has his admirers in Leeds.
Current best: Richardt Strauss (Leinster) -- John Fogarty's forced retirement created a void at hooker and Strauss has filled it splendidly and looks set to be a key Leinster figure for the foreseeable future.
Greatest hit: Richardt Strauss (Leinster) -- See above.
And a miss ... Harry Vermaas (Leinster)
-- A South African who could play hooker and prop -- neither very well.
Current best: BJ Botha (Ulster)
One of the foremost scrummagers in world rugby, Ulster's unfulfilling form has nothing to do with the Springbok tight-head.
Greatest hit: Stan Wright (Leinster) -- Was glibly written off in certain quarters on his arrival but the Cook Islands prop has been fantastic for the province, good in the scrum and a go-to guy in the loose with, as Bernard Jackman revealed, a bit of dog in him also.
And a miss ... CJ van der Linde (Leinster) There's some sympathy for Van der Linde based on a persistent toe injury which, essentially, forced him to play on one foot at Leinster. However, that seems to have cleared up since his premature exit and the sight of the Springbok gambolling about during the November Internationals must have been galling to Leinster eyes.
Current best: Nathan Hines (Leinster)
Wonderfully abrasive in the Leinster engine room, with an offloading game perfectly suited to the fluid rugby favoured by Joe Schmidt. Immense in both games against Clermont.
Greatest hit: Michael Swift (Connacht) -- A magnificent servant of Connacht with nous and skill to go with his unwavering commitment to the cause.
And a miss ... Tom Bowman (Munster) -- A quality second-row who was up with the best in the late 1990s, but the Wallaby didn't last long in Munster.
Current best: Johann Muller (Ulster)
Ulster's Springbok experiment has yet to come to fruition but Muller has proved his worth as a second-row enforcer and a natural leader.
Greatest hit: John Langford (Munster) -- Andrew Farley put in a good stint with Connacht but his fellow Australian Langford gets the nod for his contribution to Munster establishing themselves as a European force to be reckoned with. A quality line-out operator.
And a miss ... Aaron Freeman (Leinster) -- David Pusey and Chris Wyatt had less than stellar spells with Munster but Freeman, the 6ft 9ins American, was spectacularly unsuccessful ambling around for Leinster in the late 1990s.
Current best: Pedrie Wannenburg (Ulster) -- Like fellow Springbok Pienaar, Wannenburg is included on the basis of the absence of viable alternatives. Has had his moments for Ulster but too inconsistent for rave reviews.
Greatest hit: Rocky Elsom (Leinster) His exploits under Michael Cheika are now the stuff of legend. Leinster's Heineken Cup-winning outfit were far from a one-man show but Elsom was their Roy of the Rovers. Mention too for Kiwi Dean Oswald, who had a shuddering impact on Irish rugby with Blackrock and Leinster in the 1990s.
And a miss ... Owen Finegan (Leinster) Another 'what was the point?' southern hemisphere signing. A brilliant blind-side flanker in his day, but that day was a distant memory when he limped into Leinster.
Current best: Ray Ofisa (Connacht)
Fantastic, tireless open-side whose devotion to tackling is a rallying point for Connacht against stronger teams.
Greatest hit: Ray Ofisa (Connacht) -- No-one to touch Ofisa at open-side, as Andy Ward and Keith Gleeson both qualified for Ireland.
And a miss ... Tamaiti Horua (Ulster) -- Who? Exactly.
Current best: Robbie Diack (Ulster)
Another South African to decamp to Belfast, but Diack has earned his corn since joining three seasons ago.
Greatest hit: Jim Williams (Munster)
-- Massively influential on and off the pitch as a player before moving seamlessly into a Heineiken Cup-winning coaching role.
And a miss ... Nick Williams (Munster) -- Arrived from Auckland Blues with a big reputation and a bigger waistline. One excellent performance against the Dragons was not enough to justify two seasons spent injured, or playing (badly) in the AIL.