Wednesday 18 September 2019

Comment: Save your outrage for Joe Schmidt, not for Bundee Aki, Simon Zebo or the IRFU

Joe Schmidt and (inset) Simon Zebo
Joe Schmidt and (inset) Simon Zebo

Jack O'Toole

Here we go again. "The foreigners are coming to take our jobs. Round up the pitchforks and the torches".

On Thursday, Connacht centre Bundee Aki was named as one of four uncapped players in Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad for the upcoming November internationals.

Aki joins an Irish squad with fellow residents CJ Stander and Rob Herring after qualifying to play for Ireland earlier this month under the three-year residency rule.

His inclusion in the Ireland squad should be no more jarring than Stander’s or Herring’s, or any of the other foreign born players that have represented Ireland in the past, but nevertheless, it is for some.

But for those with short memories, in May, World Rugby effectively killed off the existence of the ‘project player’ when they voted to increase the required residency period to be eligible for international rugby from three to five years (beginning in 2020).

Aki still qualifies under the three-year rule but because he is a New Zealander with no ancestral ties to Ireland, and because Simon Zebo, a Cork man at the peak of his powers, has been excluded from the latest Irish squad almost certainly due to his move to Racing 92 next season, the residency rule drum has been dusted off and the band of critics are getting back together with Neil Francis on lead vocals.

‘No need for new material Neil. Play the hits! The crowd want the hits!’

With lead singles such as ‘Does he even know the words of Amhrán na bhFiann?’ and ‘Irishmen versus Englishmen. Men who know what the rivalry really means between these two countries’ - it’s a popular brand of music to the baying crowd.

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But music at times is just a temporary release from reality and the reality in this situation is that every country in the Six Nations has been playing this game for years, if not for the best part of a decade, if not for a while longer.

The outrage was appropriate under the three-year residency rule, but when World Rugby changed that ruling to five years, a once captivating lead singer all of a sudden sounds like a broken record with a microphone, ala Axel Rose.

The obvious irony in the timing of Aki’s inclusion, and Zebo’s exclusion, is that both men are essentially chasing the same thing; fonder pastures in a foreign country.

In a career path where hits are hard and careers are short, you certainly can’t criticise anyone for pursuing such an avenue, but you also shouldn’t criticise Joe Schmidt or the IRFU for enforcing a home based selection policy.

Ireland can’t compete with the riches of England and France, that much has been made abundantly clear, so the only leverage the IRFU has over keeping a player in the Irish system is his spot on the national team.

Welsh club rugby has been gutted over the last decade by national players moving abroad and it took the WRU until 2014 to realise that the gaping hole in their roof needed fixing.

They consequently introduced a national dual-contract system in November 2014 and a selection policy titled ‘Gatland’s law’, where head coach Warren Gatland was able to select up to three Welsh players based outside of Wales.

However, earlier this month the WRU adopted Australia’s selection model, whereby any player based outside of Wales will be eligible to play for the national team providing they have received at least 60 international caps.

The idea is that it encourages players to spend the prime of their rugby years in their home country before chasing fonder pastures abroad towards the tailend of their careers.

It benefits the clubs greatly. For instance, if Ireland simultaneously allowed Zebo to play for Racing and for the national team, others would undoubtedly follow and the provinces would run the risk of essentially becoming much like a League of Ireland club or some of the Welsh clubs in years goneby; where there would be plenty of homegrown players but all of the country's top-tier talent is playing abroad.

It's an extreme example, I know, but it's ultimately the rationale; keep the best homegrown players at home to keep interest high in the clubs.

You can't blame Aki for exploiting a more financially lucrative loophole in the system. You can't blame Zebo, as Munster's all-time leading try scorer, for making a decision to better his future. And you can't blame Schmidt, and/or the IRFU, for enforcing a homegrown selection policy.

But what you can criticise Schmidt (and every other coach in sport) for is selection.

As head of the Irish Rugby team, it's interesting that Schmidt once again put Rob Kearney in the shop window when it came at the expense of budding talent Tiernan O'Halloran.

I gave up questioning Schmidt as a coach a long time ago. The man is a rugby savant, and when I hear from Irish rugby player after Irish rugby player that he is one of the most intelligent rugby minds in the sport, I figured I'd take their word for it.

But that resource should be used more often, and while press conferences aren't the ideal setting to test his wealth of knowledge, they're the only outlet we get to ask why an injured Rob Kearney was picked over O'Halloran?

What did he see in Rob Herring that he thought would be better suited to the squad than the ever-dynamic Sean Cronin?

It's hard to question Schmidt. Kearney was the third best full-back at his own club last year and Schmidt started him against the undefeated All Blacks. He was one of the best players on the pitch that day in a historic Irish win.

It's hard to question Schmidt, but it's not hard to ask him questions.

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