Alan Quinlan: I didn't care where Ray Houghton was from in 88 - we should embrace project players
As a player, I felt isolated and hurt when I lost my place to a someone not from Ireland but I can now see the bigger picture. Irish rugby's playing pool is shallow and project players give us greater depth
Published 29/10/2016 | 02:30
Jim Williams arrives in Cork in 2001 with a World Cup winner's medal in his pocket and dreams in his head.
And he is just what Munster need. He's hard-nosed, skilled, experienced.
A good guy.
A team player.
A man everyone looks up to.
A f*****g back-row.
I look at him in training and see the things he does well, note that he is an inch bigger than me, a few pounds heavier, a little bit quicker.
I think back to the conversations I had with Jerry Holland, then the Munster team manager. "We need an All Black, an Aussie, a South African," I said. "When we faced Saracens, they had these class players. Everyone who is anyone has them. We don't have enough overseas talent. We need to buy one or two."
I meant what I said. I remember the impact John Langford had when he arrived. Big John was huge for us in more ways than one. He brought professionalism and ideas. He was miles ahead of us in terms of his nutritional and training habits. We thought we had it cracked and then we saw him lap a few of the lads in a 3km run and realised we were way behind this fella in terms of fitness.
So we looked and we learned and we made ourselves better and when his time at Munster came to an end, we all turned to one another and said, 'John Langford may be from Australia but John Langford will forever be a Munster man'.
"Great signing Jerry," I said to Holl. "He was the full package. We need more guys like him."
That was what I said publicly. But under my breath I added another sentence. "We need more guys like that … so long as they are not fellas who play in my f*****g position."
The year is now 2002. We're in Paris. Heineken Cup quarter-final. Stade Francais v Munster. The kind of day I loved. For us, the European games were just brilliant and all I wanted was to be out on that pitch, playing in an atmosphere that good.
Instead, my heart is broken. Having re-established myself in the side, I'm back here, sitting on the bench - angry, disappointed, isolated and envious.
The bench. So close and yet so far.
I was worried. This wasn't just my livelihood but also my life. My contract was up at the end of the year. I thought about that, thought about how good this team was, how it was going forward, and yet here I was sitting on a bench - looking at the other guys.
And I knew, deep down, that once you were not playing for Munster then you were not going to get called up for Ireland, either. I didn't mind the rotation at times. I knew it was important but missing that quarter-final was a killer. So I felt bad but knew I needed to keep my mouth shut because if I did too much whingeing and moaning, they could go and get someone else to step in.
In any case, Jim played well. He always did. He was a great player and an equally good team-mate. When he was captain, I liked serving under him but I'd be lying if a selfish part of me didn't think from the moment he was announced as captain that I was in trouble. 'How am I going to oust him from the starting spot now?' I asked myself.
He was from a place called Young in New South Wales. I was from Limerick Junction in Munster. He was on the team. I was not.
And it hurt.
So my point is that I know where Luke Fitzgerald is coming from. Jim was an overseas signing rather than a project player like Bundee Aki but the concept is similar, whereby an Irish-born fella can lose out in a provincial, or now national, setting to a foreign-born player.
Yet while there is empathy there for whoever may lose their spot in the next couple of years to Bundee Aki or CJ Stander, this isn't a concept I oppose because, from the outside looking in, it's clear we don't have the playing numbers other countries have.
Which is why we need a plan. And the project one is as good as any. To start with, what the IRFU are doing is within the rules and secondly - from a financial point of view it makes sense. By their nature, project players are young men. They don't cost a fortune. And I would rather see these type of players coming into the provinces than five overseas players who cannot contribute to the bigger picture.
With the project player you get a double-whammy - a guy who can play for the province and, potentially, the national team. Signing a ready-made overseas player - a Dougie Howlett - can be great. Sometimes you get the finished article. Other times you just get someone who is simply finished. As a rugby man, I want Ireland to be better and have more options. Yet I don't want the place flooded with overseas players. I don't want another example like Dylan O'Grady, who infuriated me when he got capped under Brian Ashton in the 1990s, because he was a guy who played his rugby in England, flew into Ireland for internationals and then flew out again.
If your sole concern is patriotism, then this residency idea won't be for you - because Bundee Aki, Jared Payne or CJ Stander are not Irish. But if these guys are playing for Ireland in the 2019 World Cup, will we have a better chance of success? You better believe it.
Ray Houghton scores against England in 1988
Just as significantly, you have to think of the impact a run to a World Cup semi-final or final would give the nation and the next generation of player coming through. Thinking back to my own childhood in Tipperary, I can still clearly picture that Sunday afternoon sitting in my front room with the television blaring and Ray Houghton looping his header over Peter Shilton to give Ireland a 1-0 win in Stuttgart.
I remember Italia '90. Romania on a Bank Holiday Monday. I remember being so proud to be Irish and didn't one for second stop to ask whether the players I was cheering were brought up in Dublin, Cork, Barnsley, Wales, Liverpool or Cornwall. That wasn't the issue for me as a kid and now CJ Stander's place of birth isn't relevant for me, either.
What matters is the fact our player pool is shallow in comparison to England, France, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. What matters is that the English and French clubs have considerably deeper financial resources than us.
They can buy the finished article. We can't always do that. Therefore, we have to develop our own.
And if that means playing within the rules and going out and signing uncut diamonds from abroad then that is what we have to do. The provinces will benefit firstly, the national team latterly.
And if this attitude appears too cynical then why not extend the residency rule from three years to five? Give them even more time to be embedded into the Irish culture, to learn about our rugby values, so that the potential frustration or anger towards Bundee Aki knocking an Irish guy - Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Olding or Luke Marshall - out of the team will subside.
The bottom line here is that the project player makes Irish rugby stronger. Financially, international rugby is the main money driver for the IRFU. They have to run it like a business and if they can get value for money from within the laws of the game then they'd be fools to take this gift horse and look at it in the mouth.
Sure, it's tough on the individual who gets dropped. But at the top level it is all about winning. And if I was a coach, I would be looking to exploit the situation.
And if I was still a player, I'd have a conversation with myself and tell myself to work harder and be ready if the chance comes - which is what happened to me in 2002 when Jim got a calf injury before the semi-final against Castres.
What Irish rugby wants is a man who cares 100 per cent for the shirt. It doesn't matter where he is from.