Hugh Farrelly: Home-grown players the special ones
OF the many Ireland press conferences at the World Cup, the most roguish question belonged to an English journalist who enquired the following of Tom Court before the quarter-finals. "Tom, how would you feel on Monday if you were the only Australian left in the tournament?"
The Ulster prop didn't bat an eyelid and, adhering to the established political tactic of not accepting the premise of the question (his Brisbane upbringing), replied: "If you look at my passport, I think you'll find I'm Irish."
A good answer, but weakened somewhat by Court's Australian twang and the fact that, in the circumstances, he could not use the ubiquitous Aussie 'mate' for added vehemence.
Court has strong Hibernian links through his maternal grandfather, Patrick Carey, and was always aware of his Irish roots before moving here nearly six years ago. It makes him an import, but an Irish import, similar to Isaac Boss, who was raised in Tokoroa, New Zealand but qualified for Ireland through his Co Antrim grandmother.
Both have been valuable servants of Irish rugby -- with the good manners to play club rugby in the country they represent, as opposed to others such as Scotland's Australian stalwarts Nathan Hines and Dan Parks .
The grandparent rule is the nature of business in international rugby and most countries take advantage of it, with England's New Zealander Thomas Waldrom a recent beneficiary through a randomly discovered birth cert.
The situation with 'special project' players is different. These individuals are targeted and brought into the system with the express intention of qualifying them under the three-year residency rule.
Amid all the recent furore around the IRFU's new policy on player recruitment, the issue of 'special projects' fell through the cracks, but there are ethical questions to be answered here -- wherever you stand on the use of foreign players in Irish rugby.
Richardt Strauss' involvement in Ireland's Six Nations squad preparation attracted attention last week. The Pretoria-born Afrikaner, who played for the Springbok U-19s, becomes Irish-qualified this year and his involvement in national sessions suggests he is ready and willing to choose Ireland over his native South Africa. His performances for Leinster emphasise how valuable an acquisition the hooker could be, but that does not alter the fact that Strauss is about as Irish as Oolong tea.
Just as ordering 'Venti Americano' does not turn pretentious Paddies into Italians, learning the words to 'Amhran na bhFiann' or who won the Battle of Clontarf does not make you Irish.
None of which may matter a whit, not when it comes to winning rugby matches at any rate, but this 'special project' policy is a further example of a cynical approach to nationality that seems to be blithely accepted in sporting spheres.
The bottom line is that, in the vast majority of cases, players who use the grandparent or residency rules to further their international careers do so because they were not good enough to make it (or were not wanted) in the countries where they were raised.
It is hard to imagine that home-grown hookers such as Sean Cronin, Mike Sherry, Damien Varley or the increasingly impressive Niall Scannell will be breaking out the champagne when Strauss qualifies.
He represents an obstacle to their ambitions with Ireland and while these players grew up dreaming of being the next Keith Wood, Strauss was likely imagining himself as the next James Small or Naka Drotske.
When you are dealing with a player of Strauss' quality, quibbles can be quashed by the anticipation of his impact in an Ireland jersey, but what about Peter Borlase or Steven Sykes?
These players were also brought over as 'special projects' and have constituted nothing more than a colossal waste of time and money.
For all its flaws, the IRFU's Player Succession Strategy has the right motivation -- to promote the use of home-grown talent and it's encouraging to note that Ireland's starting XV in Paris is comprised entirely of players who grew up here. Perhaps that's the solution -- if this Ireland team could consistently replicate their heroics against Australia, there would be less need to indulge in crass nationality swapping.
And, just in case any prospective Ireland internationals from abroad are wondering... 'Amhran na bhFiann' is the Irish national anthem and Brian Boru's forces won the Battle of Clontarf.