There's huge value in our home produce
Published 06/01/2012 | 05:00
PERHAPS it stems from the insecurities of our colonial past and existence in the arm-pit of a once global power, but there is a long Irish tradition of cap-doffing when it comes to overseas visitors.
It is a regular feature of chat-show interviews, past and present -- a desperate need to get an answer to the "what do you think of Ireland?" question, the throwaway replies generally revolving around central themes of the greenness of the grass and friendliness of the people.
Rugby is particularly susceptible. It is easy to recall the fawning deputations sent to Cork Airport to cover Jean de Villiers' arrival a few years ago. With his blond hair and easy charm, the South African cut quite the dashing figure, but his worth to the Munster cause was always in question and those doubts were justified over the course of one unfulfilling season.
Less glamorous, but far more satisfying (and cost-effective) has been the progress of the likes of Keith Earls, Conor Murray, Cian Healy and Fergus McFadden working their way steadily up the system to become provincial figureheads and international-quality players.
The issue of foreign players' worth to Irish rugby has been a consistent theme here and one that stems back to the 1990s, when a steady stream of Antipodean bluffers flowed into the club game, accents alone enough to guarantee free accommodation, financial support and willing admirers.
Of course, there were exceptions, then and now -- overseas players who made worthy contributions to their respective causes and brought on the homegrown talent around them. And that is the motivation, for all its logistical flaws, behind the IRFU's controversial Player Succession policy.
The intention is to reduce the amount of duds -- the Nick Williamses, Clint Newlands and Rob Deweys (the list is endless) -- and control the use of non-Irish qualified imports so as not to hinder indigenous progress.
Of course there are problems with the plan. The lack of clarity on the selection process is a major one, with the US draft system where the weakest team gets first pick probably the fairest solution.
There are also valid concerns about the best foreigners going to clubs where they have the possibility of a contract extension (although this can be countered by Rocky Elsom's 'veni, vidi, vici' one-year sojourn with Leinster).
But the end result, for all the angst to come, has to be good news for the national team and, though it shouldn't need to be pointed out, Ireland comes first.
Scotland, Argentina and Wales (twice) have made it to World Cup semi-finals -- something Ireland have yet to achieve in 24 years of trying. That is not acceptable.
The Heineken Cup has been fantastic for Irish rugby and there are supporters who tell how following their province in Europe is more satisfying and more important than following Ireland.
Fair enough, but even the stoutest provincial fan has to acknowledge the euphoria that followed the pool win over Australia in September and the Grand Slam triumph in 2009.
Some of the reaction to the IRFU's policy has been excessively negative, with suggestions that it could prevent the provinces from ever winning the Heineken Cup again.
Really? Let's take Leinster and apply an extreme example. If Joe Schmidt were forced to pick an all-Irish qualified team for a European encounter, it could read: R Kearney; D Kearney, McFadden, D'Arcy, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Reddan; Healy, Cronin, Ross; Cullen, Toner; McLaughlin, O'Brien and Heaslip. And that's without Brian O'Driscoll.
When you add the four NIE players and one project player that will still be allowed under the new system, and other young talents such as Ian Madigan, Eoin O'Malley, Andrew Conway, Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan, you find plenty of depth to challenge for the Heineken Cup.
There has been an assumption over the years that the overseas player is better than the Irish alternative and, increasingly, that is not the case.
Look at the progress made by Madigan this season under Schmidt. If Mat Berquist had not been injured, it is a safe assumption that the young Irish out-half would not now be in the mix for the Six Nations squad and Ireland Wolfhounds game.
Overseas players still have a role to play with the provinces, but for all the procedural problems with the IRFU's new policy, it is time to believe in the talent we produce ourselves.
And, hopefully, Irish rugby's cap-doffing days will soon be over.