Sunday 23 July 2017

Tommy Conlon: Talent will always trump patriotism no matter how deep the bloodlines

The Couch

John Aldridge. Photo: Sportsfile
John Aldridge. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Thursday night on the telly and there's John Aldridge rolling out the old guff and gags for Tommy Tiernan.

A likeable scout, Aldo, we'll always have a welcome for him in this country, even when the memories he's still milking for a few bob were long ago covered by blue mould: Big Jack, the pints, the lads and the crack.

Tiernan ran a riff on Aldo's famous sideline outburst at the steward in the immortal blue blazer during USA '94. To a chorus of f-words, the Scouser called him a "twat", and indeed a "dickhead". Tiernan remarked that in the distinguished history of Irish oratory, this one was "up there with 'I am of Ireland' by Mary Robinson".

But, he suggested, "You're not actually Irish?!" Ah. The ancient slur, the old blood libel, the rogue genie in the genetic bottle. Aldo laughed along but he was quick to assert his family connections: his maternal forebears had come from Galway and Athlone.

Aldridge was in the first concerted wave of British-born football players to begin stretching the traditional eligibility boundaries for Ireland. Big Jack recruited them with the gusto of Lord Kitchener in 1914.

Apart from all the plastic Paddy jokes this strategy spawned, it also triggered debates that touched on matters of history, sociology and culture. But we accepted it pretty quickly, primarily on the basis that we could do with all the help we could get.

The public by and large was soon enjoying the wider mix of accents and backgrounds. Big Cas became as popular as Big Niall. The debate was more or less settled.

But now it's back on the agenda, this time in the rugby arena, where no ancestral connection to the nation you represent is required at all. You can fetch up in a country of your choice, spend three years in quarantine, and presto you're eligible for the national team.

The former Argentine captain Agustin Pichot, now the vice-chairman of World Rugby, is an influential dissenter from this policy. He believes the identity of international teams is becoming unacceptably diluted.

Last November he was publicly supported by Luke Fitzgerald. The former Ireland international believes there's a problem here too; the plastic in Paddy has become just a bit too elastic. If the trend continues, he said, international rugby will resemble "the Barbarians (exhibition team) versus the Barbarians."

It's a slippery conundrum. The vast majority of rugby fans don't seem to have a problem with the current dispensation.

At the other extreme is the soccer supporter who long ago became resentfully accustomed to the revolving door at his club: players in, players out, no roots in the community, no loyalty to the fans.

Whatever about the club game, most international soccer teams are still composed of players born and reared in the country they represent. Rugby's more malleable rules may in fact lead to greater dilution in its international game.

But will it lead to higher quality in national teams, and therefore more level competition? The current system allows for a redistribution of resources from the richest nations to the mid-tier and low-ranking countries. New Zealand, South Africa and Australia to a lesser degree all produce surplus stocks of top-quality players. Countries like Ireland, Scotland, Italy, the USA and Canada are made more competitive by their availability.

One of the problems is that big-population countries like France and England can likewise augment their squads with imports. Another is that places like Tonga, Fiji and Samoa are being plundered by the richer powers in the southern hemisphere and increasingly in the northern hemisphere too. It is not so much redistribution here as brazen asset-stripping.

The comments of Pichot and Fitzgerald have not so far generated a big wave of public agreement. Supporters ultimately don't care greatly about the provenance of the players representing their team. Fans in general are a fickle lot too. First and foremost they want their side to win. They are happy to cut corners and skirt their principles for a shot of success.

Overall, this is an issue with a lot of angles and arguments, for and against. But a core reality is that talent will always trump patriotism. Given the choice between a mediocre native and a better import, most fans will choose the latter. Performance is more important than bloodlines.

Kinship and community won't save you if you don't have the requisite ability. Nor is it any guarantee of a deeper emotional commitment to the cause. A player who has signed for money one day can perform with all his heart and soul the next; a player who is ten generations deep in the community can be weak-willed and faint-hearted.

Granted, we all can name players from other places who wore the green, in both codes, and came and went without making much of an impression. It was a good career move at the time.

It was a good career move for Aldridge too, when he first came on board in 1986. But by the time he was finished, there was much mutual affection all round.

It was surely a personal highlight that he got to meet the aforementioned Mary Robinson on the red carpet at Lansdowne Road when she might have greeted him with the words: "I am of Ireland, Aldo - and so are you."

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