Sport Rugby

Wednesday 18 September 2019

COMMENT: IRFU happy to stand by rule that makes mockery of international rugby

CJ Stander has benefited from the residency rule
CJ Stander has benefited from the residency rule
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ye olde order of rugby has convened in Dublin this week and while the establishment is not exactly rocking, it has received a few welcome shots across its bows.

The difference now is that the ammunition is coming from within, in the guise of Argentina's Agustin Pichot.

While the establishment figures may have lingered over brandy in the Westbury Mezzanine following the bloodless elections, you can imagine punchy Pichot slipping off into Bruxelles. Downstairs.

His assault on the oft-targeted eligibility rules that continue to make a mockery of the international game were pooh-poohed by the suits on Tuesday; Brett Gosper, CEO of World Rugby, claimed there was nothing to see here.

The first response from the old order arrived from the IRFU yesterday, with Philip Browne confirming the ultra-conservative view, admitting that the rules, which have allowed Ireland to accumulate internationals from a variety of territories, are fine.

Well, as the rest of the Tier Two and Tier Three nations might respond, he would say that, wouldn't he? However, he was sanguine enough when entertaining an expansion of the residency period from the current three to five years.

"We have discussed this with other Unions and our position is that it seems fine," confirmed the IRFU's chief executive. "There is not a huge flow of players across the borders. The rule is three years and we are happy with the rule at three years. If the rule change to five years, we would be happy with the rule at five years. Gus (Pichot) has a view, other Unions also have a view. He has pronounced his view which is fair enough."

Asked if this was a comfortable representation of the old world view, Browne expanded. "You have to have some sort of fair regulation that allows people to move and inhabit another country and yet not denying them the opportunity to play rugby."

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The ideal scenario would be for Ireland to produce an entirely indigenous team and this, presumably, will be to the forefront of performance director David Nucifora's quiet - or not so quiet, depending on your province - revolution.

"The best value for money for Irish rugby is to develop its own players," he confirms. "Without a doubt. That has always been the case and will continue to be the case.

"We have to be a bit more clever about what we do, that's where David and the player pathway is absolutely essential."

It seems pre-ordained that Bundee Aki (right) will join his current Connacht team-mate Robbie Henshaw in the Ireland international set-up. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile

Which, naturally, leads us to discuss another player seeking to potentially take advantage of the rules; Connacht's midfield sensation Bundee Aki, who has yet to be tied down before his residency period expires next summer.

Judging by Browne's suggestion, it should be his Connacht counterpart Willie Ruane scratching around in his suit pocket for a cheque book and pen, not IRFU treasurer Tom Grace.

"That's very much up to Willie," says Browne. "He is more than aware of the circumstances. Ultimately, that is up to him to deal with that along with Bundee and I am sure those conversations will happen in good time."

The IRFU have been rather less cosy in some of their other dealings with the provinces of late, despite their subsidiary status; neither can function without the other but only one holds the purse strings. Hence, decisions like Cian Kelleher's move to Connacht, for example, ruffled Leinster's feathers; probably no bad thing given Ireland's need to have four strong provinces.

The IRFU will give additional funding to all four provinces next year on an equal basis - sums just under €1m have been mentioned although Browne didn't offer any - as they bid to narrow the widening gap between them and the rest of Europe. A gap, admits Browne, that the IRFU cannot possibly close in terms of finance on a day when France unveiled plans for a new TV deal which will be worth €97m - a year.

"We want to try and make sure they can at least keep their heads above water and stem, or at least close the gap that's there. The reality is we're never going to be able to close that financial gap. it's just too wide. Change is always difficult, the one strategy that we can implement is to try to produce better quality players, quicker. There's only one way you can do that and it's by having a very effective pathway which requires resourcing and that's what we're doing. With four provinces in competition with each other, it's not unrealistic that there would difficulties and tensions at times.

"David said those players with ambition who want to progress have to look at the opportunities that are available to them. If Cian or others see a better opportunity to develop as a professional they have to be selfish about it. It's not our job to stand in their way. Provinces who are in competition with each other may not like it but we should not hold back the development of young players."

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