Sunday 18 February 2018

Foreign influence has shown natives how to win

IRFU plan will stunt growth of Irish talent, says Emmet O'Rafferty

Emmet O'Rafferty

Watching Ulster's win over Edinburgh, I couldn't help but reflect on the IRFU's proposal to limit the number of foreign imports. The influence of foreign players in developing local talent, particularly young players, has been key in the progress of the provinces.



It is impossible to measure the effect on Paddy Jackson of playing outside Ruan Pienaar, who is a World Cup winner and a player of extraordinary talent.

The rule change is unnecessary and will only damage the game in Ireland. Having done so many good things to get the structure of the game right, here we are risking going into reverse. As a small country, we are not only competitive but successful in a major team sport. So let me acknowledge the IRFU's achievement, which has been no mean feat.

However, with any business, you must look at your weaknesses and seek to improve on them. Despite great talent and success at provincial level, we have underperformed at international level.

The perceived wisdom is that the proposed new law is driven by a need to develop more props. I'm sure it's wider than just that, but there are many more constructive ways to tackle player development. Look at how Ian Madigan has developed this year under the astute guidance of Joe Schmidt, despite the Leinster coach also having Jonathan Sexton at his disposal.

A more thoughtful approach would allow us to focus on issues that need more urgent attention and which could give us better results, such as: 1 A change in the propping rules at school level; 2 Game-time for second and third-string players; 3 Better use of Division 1 teams in terms of player development; 4 Stronger focus on skill quality; 5 Better use of Connacht for development.

Ireland's problem has always been how to develop the talent it has, how to bring it through, how to nurture it and how to get the best out of it. Players need exposure to develop mental strength and confidence. Munster and Leinster have shown the way, and Ulster are joining that club.

I'm delighted to see Ulster back in a Heineken Cup final. Irish rugby needs Ulster performing at that level consistently. Brian McLaughlin has done a magnificent job in developing their structures and bringing through young players to get them to where they are today. I doubt if it would have been achieved without those overseas influences.

The IRFU's proposal to limit the number of foreign players is extremely difficult to understand. If they are looking to develop more homegrown talent, the way to do it is not to create rules. If this is driven by the need for more props, why did they move Jamie O'Hagan to Leinster, where he got no game-time, when he could have had six Heineken Cup games under his belt with Connacht?

They should just seek to work with the provinces on a case by case basis regarding all imports -- good old-fashioned management and communication instead of rewriting the rule book. All that happens as a result of the rule change, is that you send a signal to the rugby world that makes Ireland less attractive for coaches and players.

There are two key elements to the overseas influence.

Firstly, attitude to winning from the neck up: I've absolutely no doubt that the influence of Pienaar, Pedrie Wannenburg and the other South Africans in the Ulster side had a huge impact on the team's attitude to winning. Wannenburg did not have his best game last weekend -- he was lucky to get the try he got -- but the difference as far as he was concerned was that he was winning. So, if he wasn't having his best day at the office, he dealt with it through attitude.

This kind of influence spreads throughout a team. It teaches people how to win. Rocky Elsom, in my view, didn't just win one Heineken Cup with Leinster. He won two -- because of his impact on Jamie Heaslip, Sexton and co. Having talent in itself is nothing. People have to learn how to win, how to use their talent to win. That is one of the chief influences of some of these foreign imports.

The second area of influence is the basic skill level. Pienaar's efficiency and accuracy, when he attempted to do anything last week, was an example for all to see. That efficiency comes from a clarity of thought and a desire to improve through constant practice. If he's able to think with sufficient clarity and understand the need for pinpoint accuracy in all of his actions, that attitude rubs off on a Paddy Jackson, who will in turn require more of himself in terms of the accuracy of his passing and kicking.

The example of Tommy Bowe is a case in point. Before Tommy went to Wales, I used to say he didn't know what his hands were for. He used to run around the park with his hands by his side, and every time somebody passed him the ball, he had to get the tools out -- and by the time he got the tools out it was too late. Then he went to the Ospreys. They taught him how to develop the basic skills that he had. They taught him how to use his tools, and look at the player we have today. He's one of the best in the world.

The IRFU should be very careful what they wish for. They might get it, but when it arrives it could be vastly inferior.

Emmet O'Rafferty is a former Leinster player who now runs a security company in Ireland and South Africa

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