Saturday 27 May 2017

Go west, young men and grow with country

There was this Aussie guy whose brief dalliance with the All-Ireland League 12 years ago encapsulated Irish rugby's ongoing problem with overseas players.

He arrived over on a sweet, free-rent, match-bonus deal, looking every inch the top-quality centre who was ready to dance across the muddy waters of the AIL.

The Aussie's first league match came at a windswept Holmpatrick where, with his first touch, he surged from his own '22' right up to the Skerries try-line only to knock on in contact.

A wonderful effort, by any standards, but the knock-on told the truer story and, as his lack of ability became woefully apparent over the next few months, the Aussie lost his starting place and his bonus and had to get a job in Xtra-vision to pay his rent.

He was a pleasant bloke, but quickly turned into a cautionary tale in the AIL, and a sad figure around the club, where he became known as 'One Great Run'.

The 'One Great Run' phenomenon has been a feature of Irish rugby for at least 15 years and has persevered into the professional era.

calamities

The four provinces tend to be magnets for the southern hemisphere's flotsam and jetsam with as many duds as there have been hits and, just as our economic calamities are encouraging a 'Buy Irish' policy, it is high time Irish rugby becomes more insular.

A little, committed, overseas flavour is to be welcomed, especially in positions where the national side is not affected by a foreigner keeping the Irish incumbent out of his provincial place.

Hence, the value of the likes of Isa Nacewa, Richardt Strauss Sam Tuitupou and Doug Howlett, while the provincial coaches, particularly Munster's Tony McGahan, have been promoting Irish talent in recent times with encouraging results.

And yet, in arguably the most crucial position for Irish rugby, the overseas card recently has been over-indulged, once again, with Clint Newland, Rodney Ah You, Dylan Rogers, Barry Fa'amausilli and Peter Borlase all joining Irish provinces in the last few weeks.

Some of those signings are on a trial basis and are justified by injury or retirement, 'project' (future Irish qualification) reasoning and the fact that extra props are needed for Magners League and Heineken Cup benches.

However, while it is safe to assume none of these recent acquisitions fall into the 'One Great Run' category, in an ideal world, Irish rugby would not need to bring these players over.

They join a bulging overseas propping contingent that already includes BJ Botha, Stan Wright, Heinke van der Merwe and Wian du Preez.

This influx increases the prospect of Irish props losing out and, 10 months away from the World Cup, how helpful is that to Ireland's prospects?

There is homegrown propping talent coming through in the provinces. Dave Ryan and Stephen Archer in Munster; Jack McGrath and Stewart Maguire in Leinster; Jamie Hagan and Rob Sweeney in Connacht; and Paddy McAllister in Ulster are players who can be spread around.

Irish rugby needs these guys to be exposed to senior, competitive matches -- and not just props.

The hoary old argument that indigenous players can benefit more from the knowledge they pick up from overseas expertise than getting on the pitch is, in a word, poppycock.

Eoghan Hickey, the Lansdowne out-half, formerly of Leinster, Munster, London Irish and Wasps, summed it up very well recently.

"You don't learn a huge amount ... that's a bit of a myth," said Hickey. "When you are watching a guy playing you can take a very small amount from it. You learn by playing. If you are not playing then you are not learning."

Which is why recent developments out west are especially encouraging.

Connacht's future is being secured for another three years and the indications that the province will become a proper development ground for Irish-qualified players at the expense of overseas stop-gaps can only be good news for Irish rugby.

Sean Cronin is the best example of how joining Connacht can propel you up the ladder and his international progression deserves to be emulated by the likes of Hagan, Fionn Carr and Ian Keatley.

It comes down to individual ambition; being directed west for game-time is a proposition players have chosen to reject heretofore, happy to tread water on the peripheries of the 'big three' rather than take the plunge out west.

Now, greater influence may be exerted at a national level, which is only correct and proper when you consider that the IRFU are the ultimate paymasters.

acquisitions

While overseas acquisitions have been invaluable in propping up Connacht rugby, how much better to have an Ian Nagle, Ivan Dineen, David Kearney or Peter O'Mahony starting regularly for an Irish province rather than, for all their commitment, a Bernie Upton, Niva Ta'auso, Troy Nathan or Ray Ofisa?

We need to follow the redistribution policy of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia whose domestic blueprint helps maintain southern superiority (emphasised, once again, last month) over the overseas-embracing northern game.

The bottom line is that, rather than over-indulge the southern hemisphere overspill in our domestic game, Irish rugby should look within for sustenance.

One night, well after his lack of playing ability had been established and his slush fund cut off, 'One Great Run' went on the lash around town.

More than a little the worse for wear, his erratic approach towards the local nightclub was detected by a particularly stern-looking bouncer who subjected 'One Great Run' to a short interrogation.

"Alright, hold it right there, how many are you after?"

"Aw, as many as you'll serve me, mate."

"Okay son, time to go home ... "

Irish Independent

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