Wednesday 13 December 2017

Double-edged sword of the foreign legion

Hugh Farrelly

WE have a tendency to paint pictures of various professions in broad brushstrokes. Doctors have brutal handwriting, the police force struggle with Sudoku and nurses would hop on anything possessing a deep voice and a pulse -- with the heartbeat optional.

Taxi drivers get the generalisation treatment more regularly than most. However, the strike rate of Dublin cab-jockeys with anecdotes about exiled Irish footballer Andy Reid does seem to be inordinately high and, while not every taxi-man employs the phrase "I'm not a racist but ... ", there are an awful lot who do.

One factor is common to every member of this profession -- they have a captive audience. A recent journey began with the harmless "you'd never guess who I had in the car once" (it turned out to be Mikey from Boyzone), moved onto a rant about 'free-loading' Nigerians and ended with the driver complaining about the government donating €2m to aid the victims of the Haiti earthquake.

This dope actually had a problem with the fact that Irish tax-payers' money was being sent overseas when ... wait for it ... "they didn't help us when we were destroyed by the snow and floods". No word of a lie.

Thus, when debating the issue of foreign players in Irish rugby, you have to be careful not to leave yourself open to accusations of crass generalisation or even xenophobia (to any coppers reading, that means 'an unreasonable hatred of foreigners').

Despite Irish rugby's recent successes, there is still a tendency in this country to come over all starry-eyed when a southern hemisphere star deigns to decamp here. This ignores the fact that the decision to relocate to Ireland is not borne out of a deep desire to explore Connemara, attend hurling matches or learn how to play the spoons, it is an agent-driven choice in keeping with the primary motivations of the professional era.

There have been notable successes, such as overseas players like Trevor Halstead and Rocky Elsom, whose contribution has lifted their provinces to the point of European domination with obvious knock-on benefits for their Irish colleagues -- not to mention the provinces' marketing operations.

However, Irish rugby has now progressed to the level where overseas injections are not essential fuel for trophy accumulation. Nathan Hines is a quality international operator, not to mention a decent bloke, whose commitment to the Leinster cause is not in question. Yet the Australian-born Scottish second-row represents a major obstacle to the progress of Devin Toner -- a player the Ireland management team have high hopes for.

Denis Hurley, arguably the most in-form back-three player in Irish rugby this season, could not get into Munster's Heineken Cup backline until the decision was taken to drop one of the four overseas players that filled the five positions outside Ronan O'Gara; Ian Dowling still can't get into that side.

The situation was highlighted this week with the case of Mike Ross, third-choice tight-head at Leinster behind CJ van der Linde and Stan Wright. Ross is a key man in a vital position for Ireland yet he is woefully short on game-time while it is worth remembering that Cian Healy and Jonathan Sexton's rise to international prominence had a great deal to do with injuries to Van der Linde and Felipe Contepomi respectively.


And when foreign signings fall into the 'journeyman' category, this self-defeating situation veers towards the ridiculous.

Which is better from an Irish rugby perspective: Shaun Berne coming off the bench for Gordon D'Arcy, as happened last weekend against Brive, or Churchill Cup star Fergus McFadden? Do we really need Taimaiti Horua and Nick Williams drawing salaries in Ulster and Munster respectively when there is such good young Irish back-row talent in both provinces?

The solution? Well, in an ideal world, Connacht would be used as a means of channelling young talent on the fringes of the other provinces towards match exposure (although this also requires players to show Sean Cronin-style ambition). There would also be an end to all 'journeyman' overseas signings, only carefully selected overseas captures that come with the Ireland national team's seal of approval would get the nod.

Exerting that sort of control is easier said than done but if the Irish team is to maximise its chances against the southern hemisphere powerhouses we need to stop bringing their Trojan horses within the city walls.

Irish Independent

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