Thursday 21 September 2017

Rule change heralds end of 'Project' players

Connacht's Bundee Aki. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht's Bundee Aki. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The IRFU's policy of bolstering their playing resources through the recruitment of New Zealanders and South Africans looks set to come to an end.

World Rugby have revised the time a player needs to spend in a country before becoming eligible to play for that country from 36 to 60 months, making it highly unlikely that a young player will move expressly with the intention of playing international rugby.

The new laws will not kick in until December 31, 2020, meaning a host of 'Special Projects' will be allowed to throw their hat in the Irish ring in the coming seasons.

Later this year, Bundee Aki, Tom McCartney and Wiehahn Herbst will become available to Joe Schmidt, with Tyler Bleyendaal following early in 2018.

After that, Jamison Gibson-Park, Rhys Marshall and Jean Kleyn are all scheduled to qualify in 2019, while Leinster's incoming Kiwi James Lowe and Ulster's new South African prop Schalk van der Merwe will become eligible in 2020 before the rule change takes effect.

The union have responded by stepping up their attempts to lure Irish-qualified players born abroad to the Irish cause.

They have appointed Joe Lydon to head up their new Irish Qualified (IQ) department, with Kevin Maggs working under the former England backs coach.

The programme will seek to work on the existing Exiles structure to improve talent identification of those living in England, Australia, New Zealand and further afield.

This season, former England underage international Kieran Treadwell joined Ulster from Harlequins and could be called upon to make his debut for Ireland on the summer tour of the United States and Japan.

English born, Welsh-raised scrum-half Kieran Marmion is another to have come through the Exiles system and his Connacht team-mate Finlay Bealham, Leinster's Michael Bent and Ulster's Sean Reidy qualify through their Irish grandparents.

Ireland's use of 'Project' players has been controversial since Richardt Strauss was the first overseas signing to make his debut in 2012. Scotland and Wales have also used the rule to target players, while England and France have capped a number of southern hemisphere stars.

The change to World Rugby's laws has been slow in coming and has been driven by outspoken vice-chairman Agustin Pichot of Argentina. It will begin in January 2021, at the beginning of the newly agreed global season. "This is a historic moment for the sport and a great step towards protecting the integrity, ethos and stature of international rugby," he said.

The governing body also ruled that nations can not use their U-20 sides as their 'capture' teams, which rules players out from switching allegiance if they have played at that level.

World Rugby also handed 2019 World Cup hosts Japan and two-time semi-finalists Argentina a seat at their top table, with both countries getting a third vote at the Council table, bringing them into line with the sport's traditional powers.

Irish Independent

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