Thursday 23 November 2017

Neil Francis: Guaranteed Irish logo should apply to players too

Residency rule has corrupted Test rugby but, ironically, our imports will be key against Boks

Bundee Aki will make his Ireland debut against South Africa this weekend
Bundee Aki will make his Ireland debut against South Africa this weekend
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Finicky bunch that lot on Twitter, a few of them branding me racist for taking a hard line on something I feel strongly about. The fervent wish that anyone who represents Ireland at any sport at international level be Irish. A simple constitution - born here, raised here, or a passport holder or son, daughter or grandchild of Irish parents or grandparents. An authentic connection to the island irrespective of creed, code or colour. Is that too much to ask for?

Surely the foundation stone of inter-nation rivalry is that we pit the best of us up against the best of them without the need to include somebody else's clan. When is it ever right that someone who needs a work visa to work in this country gets to play for us.

At what stage do we as spectators or followers reach a tipping point where our national inclination and hearts say no more? Five tourists in the team? Seven? Would eight break the camel's back - over half the team don't have Irish passports but have an Irish jersey.

Much of this is a moot point because this corruption of international rugby ends in 2020. The integrity of the international game was being compromised and World Rugby acted prudently and made it a five-year residency - I would have doubled it. Are World Rugby a racist organisation for stipulating that tourists who secure a contract for services for three years, even though they have no connect with the country they ply their trade in, now have to wait for five years before they qualify?

The Guaranteed Irish logo, is that purely an aspiration for our goods, services and products? Can we not have the logo on our rugby players too?

I must confess to some exasperation when I see people use the example of say Ronan O'Gara, Simon Easterby or Brendan Mullin being born overseas. Good God, how can people misinterpret the point. All of those players were born overseas to Irish parents and they have Irish passports or the option to have one.

Aki will need to embroider his way very quickly into the fabric of a Joe Schmidt team if he is to utilise his undoubted ability. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Aki will need to embroider his way very quickly into the fabric of a Joe Schmidt team if he is to utilise his undoubted ability. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It was interesting to note that Conor Murray was asked to comment about the issue. Murray made a number of guarded points and then retired to the comfort and safety of the unassailable position of his berth at scrum-half on the national team. Nobody is going to come from outside to take his place. When, I wonder, will they wheel out Luke Marshall or Garry Ringrose to say how great it is to have Bundee Aki in camp and on the team?

Marshall, it must be remembered, played in two of the three Tests in South Africa a year ago, starring in the first Test win in Newlands. It is unlikely that he will start when the team is announced today. Hey, ho - that's the way it goes.

It is, so, a rich irony that the fate of Saturday's big match lies heavily on the performances of Bundee Aki and CJ Stander.

I have no doubt that Aki will become a crowd favourite - his energy and volatile charisma will, I am sure, seduce the Aviva.

Luke Marshall played in two of the three Tests in South Africa a year ago, starring in the first Test win in Newlands. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Luke Marshall played in two of the three Tests in South Africa a year ago, starring in the first Test win in Newlands. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Nobody ever said that he was not good enough! There are questions which may be answered on his first Test which will probably be this Saturday. Aki may persuade the audience but can he persuade Joe Schmidt. Aki has the sort of dramatic flair which can change the course of a game in an instant - a lot of it instinctive but also unorthodox.

It works for Connacht but it might not work for Ireland and that is one of the great unknowns about his eventual selection. Can he adapt to Joe's way of thinking and does he have the regimented discipline that Joe requires from his players?

Aki will need to embroider his way very quickly into the fabric of a Joe Schmidt team if he is to utilise his undoubted ability.

CJ Stander will, I am certain, start at 8 when the team is announced.

His situation this Saturday is what makes the residency conundrum so complex. Stander was born in the city of George on the Western Cape and reared and educated in South Africa. He played in two junior World Cups for South Africa and was called into a senior Springbok training camp in 2012 but didn't make the grade and left for Munster.

On Saturday, he plays against his native land and his countrymen. It is incongruous that he wears our shirt to represent us against his own country. You either understand the contradiction or you don't.

Stander has had a quiet start to the year. I suppose it is a common affliction of returning Lions - post-traumatic stress disorder; it normally takes until well after Christmas before some players recover something like their true form.

If ever there was a catalyst to try and recover from a quiet start to the season - the notion of playing against the team that didn't think he measured up to their standards may just get the competitive juices flowing again.

Stander only played 23 minutes of that famous first Test match at Newlands. That charge on Pat Lambie warranted a red and so he gets his first chance to play a full Test against South Africa. How he fits in with our optimal back-row which also includes Seán O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony will be the key to this game.

I get the feeling that Allister Coetzee won't change his side too much from the one that lost by a point to New Zealand in Newlands. Coetzee has a 42 per cent record with the Springboks.

When you consider the much-derided Pieter de Villiers had a 62.5 per cent record, that is a sobering assessment. The South African coach needs a win and a good start in that order from the first match of their tour.

I'm not sure what to think about what type of game South Africa are playing. I think they have reverted to type again after attempting to copy New Zealand's fluid style for a while. Their big men were compellingly direct when they carried.

Maybe when you are playing at home you carry for another couple of metres but Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Pieter Steph du Toit always seemed to carry five metres or more past the first contact. All of their pack can carry really effectively. They also do the donkey work with deadly efficiency. They all clear the ruck with vicious intent.

Easy to say stop them on the gain line and the match is over. We have so many thieves at the breakdown I am sure that South Africa is aware of that threat and will get their clear-out forwards into the ruck in double quick time.

This is going to be a breathless encounter.

The key will be how Andy Farrell decides to deal with South Africa's alignment behind the ruck. South Africa were impossibly deep off ruck and tight and quite often the ball would end up 20 metres behind the gain line in the hope of space and width further out.

New Zealand covered it off professionally and with not a huge amount of brain work to figure out and counter South Africa's back field runners.

The difference between the sides was New Zealand's quick release at the ruck and the quality and accuracy of their handling.

It was an encouraging performance by South Africa but New Zealand could have won by a lot more than a solitary point and I'm not quite convinced that South Africa will be quite as competitive again - particularly away from home.

This will be the type of Test where parents on reflection question the wisdom of letting their sons play such a violent game. Ireland to eventually subdue and overcome a potent physical threat.

A game with more than a passing interest in Stander and Aki's presence in the national side.

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