Sport Rugby

Monday 5 December 2016

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Number of imports threatens to undermine green shirt

On the day Bundee Aki committed to the Ireland cause, Luke Fitzgerald slammed the residency laws and 'Special Project' players

Published 26/10/2016 | 02:30

Luke Fitzgerald, left, and Richardt Strauss following Ireland's victory in the 2015 Rugby World Cup against France
Luke Fitzgerald, left, and Richardt Strauss following Ireland's victory in the 2015 Rugby World Cup against France

Rarely, if ever, does a player past or present come out as strongly with an opinion as Luke Fitzgerald did about the rugby's residency laws yesterday.

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It is clear that the former Ireland international feels passionately about the IRFU's policy of recruiting players from the southern hemisphere with a view to them qualifying to play for Ireland after living here for three years, having himself been directly affected by Jared Payne's eligibility in the latter years of his all-too-short career.

Juxtaposed with news that Bundee Aki will be remaining at Connacht for the next three seasons, the 28-year-old's words were even more pointed.

Yesterday, the New Zealand-raised Samoan centre revealed that he has spoken to Joe Schmidt before deciding to turn down big-money offers from France to commit to the province and he is likely to come straight into the Ireland squad next November.

Of the 26 players Schmidt has handed debuts to, six (23pc) have qualified through residency. You can name a team of 15 players in the system who have either qualified or will qualify in the coming years.

Next season, Aki, Tom McCartney, Tyler Bleyendaal and Wiehahn Herbst all become available and look destined to play for their adopted nation.

The head coach and IRFU performance director David Nucifora have previously argued that they are simply operating within the rules to broaden the base of players they can select from.

In particular, they have looked to deepen the resources in problem positions either through players with Irish heritage or, more frequently, by recruiting players who can qualify after three years living here.

They are not alone in exploiting World Rugby's hugely controversial three-year residency law which is once again under investigation.

Regulation 8.1(c) states that a player can represent a national team after "36 consecutive months of residence immediately preceding the time of playing" and is currently under a "root and branch review" as more and more countries look to boost their options by importing players.

In cold business terms, the IRFU's argument stands up. Schmidt needs more high-quality options than the provinces can currently produce but international rugby is not a cold business.

The reason it attracts so much interest is because the Ireland team is a source of national pride. The concern is that the more overseas imports come in to improve the green jersey, the less people will care about the team.

And, given revenue generated by the Irish team fuels everything else in the game, the union are playing a dangerous game.

As Fitzgerald warns, international rugby risks becoming "the Barbarians against the Barbarians".

Taken on an individual basis, it is hard to argue with the players in question who give everything to the cause.

From CJ Stander to Payne and Robbie Diack, they have all taken different journeys to get to a point where they are representing their adopted country and none have let the team down.

The former Leinster winger emphasised that he had nothing against the individuals, but felt that the rule and the union's use of it needs to change.

"I think it's wrong," he said.

"I know that's controversial and it's no reflection on those guys (currently in the system), they're doing everything within the rules, I want to see Irish guys in there.

"Are we not good enough to fill the spots? I don't know if there's a big enough gap, to justify it?

"I don't know if being born in a different part of the world makes you a better player. If they're not making those international teams, why would we be taking them?

"Is that an admission we're not as good as them. I'm sure it is.

Yesterday, Jamie Heaslip was asked to comment on the issue and gave a 'thems the rules' response, but Fitzgerald's frustration would indicate a deeper frustration for the players who have come through the Irish system whose place is being taken by a 'special project'.

Frustration

Current players can't voice that frustration, but now he's retired Fitzgerald can speak his mind.

"Would it affect me if there was a guy from another place getting picked ahead of me? I've been in that spot, and it does pisses you off, definitely it does," he said.

"You've come all the way up through the internationals, through the system, and then all of a sudden some guy comes in and is perceived to be better because he's from a different place, and it's, 'Let get this guy in'. I think it's really disappointing."

World Rugby vice-chairman Augustin Pichot has been heavily critical of the current system, although the chief executive Brett Gosper said there was no evidence that interest in the international game is being diminished by the movement across borders.

"It's a cultural thing and an inspiration to young kids. When you have on your team all players who haven't lived in the country that they represent, it's not great," Pichot argued.

Fitzgerald agrees.

"He has a really good point," he said.

"It really dilutes it for me, I mean what's the point, it's like Barbarians v Barbarians, why do that?"

There is no doubt that Aki will improve Ireland's options when he dons the green jersey, just like Stander and Payne and others did before him.

Fitzgerald believes that strength will come at a cost and it is hard to argue with him.

Irish Independent

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