Friday 28 July 2017

Comment: Residency changes about to save Ireland from itself

We have benefited from easy access to imported talent but playing pitch is about to be extended

CJ Stander has excelled in the green of Ireland but there have been a number of non-national players who haven’t fared so well. Photo: Sportsfile
CJ Stander has excelled in the green of Ireland but there have been a number of non-national players who haven’t fared so well. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Elsewhere in these pages under the heading of 'fresh blood', we opened the door to what new talent each of the six nations might present over the next couple of months.

The Scots' entry was particularly striking: a prop from New Zealand who has a Scottish granny; a South African No 8 brought over three years ago and who is now qualified; and an Edinburgh-born Englishman with a Welsh name. The last of that three-ball is the closest thing to being a Scot. That's how rugby looks nowadays.

While they have long been lumbered with the title of Kilted Kiwis, the Scots are not unique in the race to swell their numbers. When Graham Henry was going through his Great Redeemer period as coach of Wales, around the turn of the century, they were pretty quick out of the traps in drafting in New Zealanders Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson, under the regulation, like football, that allows players to country-hop to the home of their granny or granddad. Except in the case of the two lads the grandparent in question was from somewhere other than Wales. But it's Ireland, we think, who have the gold medal in this department.

Long before the game even considered the prospect of professionalism, we reached out and embraced an Australian by the name of Brian Smith. And made him one of our own.

It was 1998, before the IRB, as World Rugby's predecessor was known, had closed one of the open windows on this front by introducing the 'one country' regulation, whereby if you played for one country you had to stick to it. This allowed Smith to play for the Wallabies against Ireland in the inaugural World Cup, in 1987, and then shift his allegiance to Ireland when he came up to these islands to study in Oxford University two years later.

The ticket he needed to gain entry was a granny, who, we were told, came from Wexford. It was never established if his granny knew Wexford from Oxford. And by the time light was being shone on that dark corner he had packed his bags - after picking up nine international caps, while playing for Leinster - and headed back to Oz, just as Ireland were focusing on the 1991 World Cup with him as their out-half. As after-tastes go, this wasn't sweet.

Soon after the game went open in 1995 the business of rounding up the diaspora gathered pace for a handful of countries. And it was twinned with the recruitment of what became known as project players: lads who weren't qualified for their new country but who hadn't played Test rugby for anyone else - in which case they became available once they had completed three consecutive years' residency. As the panel on this page shows, Ireland have some skin in that particular game. And it's about to change.

In May, World Rugby will vote on the issue of Regulation 8. And when that meeting breaks up, expect its chief executive Brett Gosper to change his tune and say that the goalposts have shifted from a three years' qualification period to five. So this will be the last Six Nations played under the virtual rock-up-and-play era.

Mostly it's been the big players, of whom we are one, who have benefited from the expediency of rugby's light-touch regulation. Whether you are Australia or New Zealand shopping in the south Pacific, or a European nation casting your net even wider, having a first-world economy, a good rugby programme, and easy access to Test rugby, is an attractive combination.

The clamour for change in this system has been led passionately by Argentina's Agustin Pichot, who was elected vice-president of WR last May. Unfortunately, he was up a mountain last week and couldn't expand on a position which is, at least, unambiguous and well known. Perhaps the most interesting line Pichot has delivered on the subject was when he said last autumn: "Somebody will kill me but we need to change it."

This gives you an idea of the vested interest in some quarters to maintain the status quo. Like ourselves and the Scots. In the old days the two of us were joined at the hip in the fruitless task of holding back the tide of professionalism with a pitchfork. Now we are wedded on the issue of easy access to non-national players. When we asked the IRFU about this at New Year they claimed that three, five, whatever number came out of the drum, they could live with. Hmm.

While we've filled our boots it hasn't been an especially rewarding exercise at Test level. It's worth remembering that the international element is only half the investment, in that you might get very good value from your import at provincial level. This is why Rassie Erasmus in Munster was prepared to declare to The Irish Times a few months back: "I think it wouldn't be great for us," he said of the potential shift to five years. "There are some positions where we would definitely need some back-up. I don't think it will happen in the next year so we will still get some time to develop."

Not so fast there Rassie. You may find the hard sell in future is based on what the player can get from Munster rather than the handy prospect of wearing green as well.

Despite our enthusiasm it's not as if we have struck gold in this business over the years. It got off to a flyer with Richardt Strauss, in the November series of 2012, but of the six who have followed there hasn't been much magnificence. Robbie Diack and Rodney Ah You were part of a job lot (it included Rob Herring who has an Irish granny) on the tour of Argentina in summer 2014. Since then, Diack got a run against Georgia five months later. Ah You got two more runs off the bench in the same November series. Herring, as it happens, hasn't been used since.

Of the remainder - Jared Payne, Nathan White, CJ Stander and Quinn Roux - Payne and Stander have been brilliant. White is finished altogether - retired through concussion - after 13 caps, and Roux, while he has time on his side, hasn't suggested he will be a quality Test player.

Were the regulation not about to change it's likely Ireland would charge ahead with their policy of observing the letter of the law. So with Bundee Aki, Tyler Bleyendaal, Tom McCartney and Wiehahn Herbst all coming on stream this year, it's hardly a quantum leap to see them in green as well. Connacht flanker Jake Heenan has already satisfied the residency criterion.

In which case it's likely that World Rugby will save Ireland from itself. Joe Schmidt's mantra is that he would be remiss not to play all the cards in his hand - for that's what his competitors are doing - but it would have been interesting to see when he reckoned the balance had tipped over the edge between an Irish team and a team qualified to play for Ireland.

Unchecked as it is, international rugby is headed for a variant of the club game, where players are recruited rather than developed. Test rugby is under enough pressure as it is from the tier below it, financed increasingly as it is by men who see World Cups and Six Nations Championships as awkward interruptions in the season.

If we really wanted to protect the integrity of the international game then, other criteria having been satisfied, you should be free to represent a country when you have satisfied their criteria on citizenship. In the absence of that one getting any support, five years is a good start.

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