Foreign policy a backwards step at Ulster
FOLLOWING on from the World Cup final debacle, it has been another challenging week for rugby credibility. Let's start with the Ospreys -- that soulless Welsh franchise who have announced that, in a bid to gain the respect that has thus far eluded them, they are cracking down on the use of false tan and coloured boots.
The Ospreys' problem is not based in beauty products or girly footwear, it is that they operate off a manufactured identity (the merging of former rivals Neath and Swansea) that has always appeared cosmetic in nature. Going public with 'Ban The Tan' as your great manning-up mantra merely opens them up for further ridicule.
Ma'a Nonu wore eyeliner against the Lions in 2005 to no adverse effect and it doesn't matter if you take to the pitch looking like Danny La Rue as long as you play like you believe in the cause. Which brings us to Ulster, who -- even at this early stage of the new campaign -- appear to have gone backwards from the progress made last season, when they reached the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1999.
The announcement that Stefan Terblanche (a former Osprey) has joined Ulster on a three-month contract following the injury to Jared Payne was treated as a good news story and a smart bit of business at the Heineken Cup launch last Tuesday.
He hooks up with a South African contingent that now stretches to five (joining Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, Pedrie Wannenburg and Robbie Diack). Muller, the best of Ulster's long line of South African imports, was excited by the prospect of hooking up again with his old Sharks buddy, describing him as a fitness "freak" and as player who can be a significant attacking asset.
All well and good, but the issue is not whether Terblanche is a good bloke off the pitch or can contribute on it, the issue is that the former Springbok winger is 36, was ready to retire, and is of absolutely no use to Irish rugby.
Thirty six is old for a prop, let alone a winger, and Terblanche won the last of his 37 caps eight years ago, while his finest hour -- a four-try debut against Ireland in 1998 -- took place when we were still using punts to buy our first mobile phone.
We have been down this road before -- overseas internationals, clearly past their best, rocking up in Ireland in search of a handy (exchange rate-friendly) boost to their pension funds.
Owen Finegan did it at Leinster, Tom Bowman at Munster and that is before we get into the legion of journeymen foreigners (think Nick Williams or Clint Newland) who have claimed a wage from the provinces while impeding the progress of indigenous talent.
Munster, Leinster and Connacht are taking encouraging strides in bringing home-grown players through but, while Ulster have a superb academy and plenty of exciting young players, they keep looking abroad.
As well as their existing South African quartet and Terblanche, Ulster have Scotland winger Simon Danielli and Australian Adam D'Arcy on their books and have just landed New Zealand's World Cup-winning prop John Afoa.
Diack and D'Arcy are both Irish qualified, but that took three years in Diack's case and surely the prerogative should be to look within before taking the overseas option when one team is representing an entire province.
Home-grown players will always have greater commitment than drive-by mercenaries looking to feather their nests, and carry the added benefit of aiding the national cause.
Terblanche's arrival could prevent the progress of the likes of Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy or promising academy players, and the South African is hardly likely to have a Rocky Elsom-style effect during his short time in Ireland.
Compounding this preposterous situation is the Willie Faloon issue (no apologies for beating this drum again) -- a specialist open-side flanker who cannot command the game time his talents deserve, due in no small part to the presence of Wannenburg and Diack.
There are genuine good news stories in Ulster -- the performances of Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble at the World Cup, the form of Dan Tuohy in the second-row and the emergence of some talented youngsters, led by Nevin Spence, who need match time to develop.
That is being compromised by this overseas myopia and a province who (winless from their last four games and facing an extremely difficult Heineken Cup pool) are losing the credibility gained last year with Ospreys-like rapidity. Ulster need to wake up and smell the false tan.