Tuesday 22 October 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'Overseas recruitment is certainly worth the risk of an occasional flop'

Performances of Fardy and Lowe highlight importance of overseas signings but it is their positive off-field attitudes that can see them leave lasting legacies at Leinster

Leinster’s Scott Fardy with the scars of battle during last weekend’s win over Saracens. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Leinster’s Scott Fardy with the scars of battle during last weekend’s win over Saracens. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

Scott Fardy was well prepared for his first media interview in Leinster gear. But behind the polished pleasantries, there was a clear message from the 2015 Rugby World Cup finalist - he understood what was expected from marquee signings in Ireland.

"With the way the Irish set up, only a few guys get to play here. I'm just honoured to be one of those guys."

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Scott Fardy, August 2017

Overseas players are much rarer species on these shores than in England and France, heightening the scrutiny. There is nowhere to hide.

There was never any danger of Fardy or James Lowe shirking their on-field responsibilities such were their respective CVs, but their performances last weekend for Leinster gave a timely reminder of how important overseas recruitment remains for the Irish provinces.

The raucous debate around qualifying players for Ireland via residency rules often silences any voice of reason when it comes to the likes of Lowe, and many who have come and gone before him - to varying degrees of success.

There was never any danger James Lowe shirking his on-field responsibilities. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
There was never any danger James Lowe shirking his on-field responsibilities. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

What often gets lost in the mud-slinging is the profound and long-term effects that the best overseas signings can have on a province, something that goes deep beyond the try-scoring and X-factor of Lowe, or the industrious, calming presence of Fardy.

Leinster's phenomenal conveyor belt of home-grown talent is the envy of every club in Europe, but every busy production line needs an astute, measured foreman - and Fardy fills that role perfectly.

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James Ryan has highlighted how important Fardy has been in his progression on a number of occasions, and the young back-rowers at the province have also tapped into the wisdom of a man who earned 39 caps for the Wallabies between 2013 and 2016.

Sexton joked that the 34-year-old is known as 'Saturday' by his peers as it is the "only day that he shows up", but that jibe, in itself, shows how settled in his surroundings, and how valued by his team-mates, the Sydney native really is.

One of the most valuable overseas signings Munster ever made was also a second-row from New South Wales.

He never got the silverware he deserved - narrowly missing out on a Heineken Cup medal in 2000 - but when we finally reached the promised land in 2006, the impact John Langford made from 1999-2001 was still deep-seated.

When the gangly Aussie arrived in 1999 we thought we were training hard - we were professional athletes after all.

At Munster, we prided ourselves on our work-rate and doggedness. But one training session with Langford - seeing a 31-year-old, 6ft 7in lock lap players on 3k runs, and take gym sessions to a whole new intensity - was an eye-opener, and triggered a sea change that was required for us to finally leave our amateur ways behind and realise our potential.

The affable second-row made a similar impact off the field too; he was a great man for a bit of craic and he emphasised the importance of social occasions to build real bonds with team-mates.

He loved playing AIL (with Shannon initially and Garryowen in his second Munster stint), embraced the culture and was a shrewd acquisition. He became one of us.

Not all overseas signings hit such high notes, of course, for various reasons.

Clinton Huppert, signed on a recommendation from New Zealand and on the pretence of being 'the next Christian Cullen', also, but infamously, wore the Shannon shirt.

Lining out for the club's seconds in 2002, Huppert lost his temper when substituted at half-time as the Munster head coach was due to have a look at the Kiwi wing in the second period.

"What the f*** are you taking me off for? Alan Gaffney is coming to watch me in the second half," Huppert screamed at Shannon coach Noel Healy.

"That's exactly why I took you off," Healy quipped in response. "Before he sees you."

There are no guarantees when signing an overseas player that they will play good rugby, and it is even more uncertain whether they will stay fit and settle in new surroundings, often also with partners and children.

Joe Tomane is a current example of someone who has plenty of quality but who hasn't been dealt many favourable hands since moving to Dublin; and he may yet prove to be a quality signing for Leinster.

If he can stay fit at the start of next season there should be ample opportunities to impress when the province have so many players fighting on a different front in Japan.

The recruitment is certainly worth the risk of an occasional flop, though.

The impression Fardy has made on Ryan is not a one-off; a raft of Irish players can point to similar relationships with provincial colleagues such as Sexton (Felipe Contepomi and Isa Nacewa), Keith Earls (Doug Howlett) and Devin Toner (Brad Thorn).

Thorn only played for Leinster for three months yet his name still comes up time and again as someone who made a profound impact on the playing group, and it was no surprise to see that kind of character make huge strides in coaching once he hung up his decorated boots.

The best imports are ultimately the ones who can gauge the culture and be comfortable in all sorts of surroundings, and there have been too many to list them all here.

Ruan Pienaar became a proud Ulsterman, someone who genuinely understood what it meant to lead that side out at Belfast.

The same could be said of Nacewa at Leinster, Jim Williams and Munster, and Jarrad Butler in his current role at Connacht.

It speaks volumes for an overseas player's character for them to appointed as provincial captain where, despite the increasing interprovincial transfers in recent times, a strong tribalism remains.

It wasn't just the way Langford played or trained that set him apart, it was how he dealt with people on a day-to-day basis, whether that was giving an elderly fan a minute of his time in the supermarket or signing autographs for a young, awestruck supporter.

The performances of Fardy and Lowe were spectacular last weekend, but in years to come their legacies may well run much deeper than their on-field impact. Those players are the real success stories.

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