Sport Rugby

Monday 20 November 2017

Gathering shamrock on foreign fields - How IRFU have become proactive about unearthing Ireland-qualified players

‘One try in Cork the previous week was a decent start to the PRO14 for Alex Wooton. Adding another four in Limerick was stellar stuff, even against dodgy opposition in the Cheetahs’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘One try in Cork the previous week was a decent start to the PRO14 for Alex Wooton. Adding another four in Limerick was stellar stuff, even against dodgy opposition in the Cheetahs’ Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

On a pleasant June afternoon in Sydney in 1994, we ended up at a local derby between Randwick and Easts. Ireland were touring Australia at the time, and a gap in that schedule was happily filled by spinning over to Coogee Oval, home to one of the world’s most famous clubs.

It was quality stuff, with Randwick out-half David Knox — long before be brought his zaniness to Leinster, as a coach — pulling the strings and magically avoiding having a hand laid on him. One of the grunts detailed to get between him and any contact was a second row called Owen Finegan.

The protector did much more than ride shotgun. In fact, he was able to do a whole bunch of tricks unknown to any Irish second row at the time, so when we got back to the team hotel we mentioned to the Ireland coach Gerry Murphy about this class act with the Irish name. Surely he had to be qualified?

Murphy was so busy at the time trying to keep his tourists off high stools and on message that exploring the genealogy of some Sydney club player was not an item he wanted to add to his agenda.

The frustrating thing was that none of the less busy folks who paid Murphy’s wages were bothered either. If the coach was under the cosh then others in the IRFU were under the impression that our resources were fine as they were. The notion of reeling in some of the diaspora from the southern hemisphere was, to them, bizarre.

In fairness to them, in the late 1980s they had set up, at the behest of Tommy Kiernan, an Exiles operation across the water. John Hunter was their man on the ground in England and over the years he wore out a lot of shoe leather in the cause. But the union had no appetite to look further afield. They had been burned in the run-up to the 1991 World Cup when another Aussie, Brian Smith — a man with much less reliable Irish ancestry than rock-solid Finegan — buggered off having hitched his wagon to Leinster and Ireland while studying in Oxford. Perhaps that put them off.

Unwittingly, the IRFU had a point though. Whatever about lads just across the water, why would the likes of Finegan, part of an Aussie system that already was looking after its players and pre-empting the official arrival of professionalism, want to jump ship to the land that time forgot?

There was a touch of irony then when eventually Finegan fetched up on these shores as hired help. It was with Leinster, in 2006, on a one-year deal. He had been in his prime when winning a World Cup medal with the Wallabies in 1999. On arrival in Dublin he was so far past that point that some of his new colleagues christened him Owen Neverfitagain.

You’ll be reassured to know that, as we speed into the 22nd season of professional rugby, the IRFU is dialing up the diaspora in the way the youth of Ireland call Boojum for their Mexican food fix.

A year ago they launched the appropriately titled IQ programme — as in, Ireland Qualified. Joe Lydon, a rugby league legend with a load of experience of development jobs in both codes, is riding point on this. So he would have been especially pleased with the performance of Alex Wootton in Thomond Park last weekend.  

One try in Cork the previous week was a decent start to the Pro14 for the 23-year-old. Adding another four in Limerick was stellar stuff, even against dodgy opposition in the Cheetahs.

“We were pretty pleased obviously,” Lydon says. “It’s good for the players themselves; it’s good for their links and connections; and it’s good propaganda for lads who, whether they’re in the English system or the Scottish system or further afield around the world, they now know there’s a pathway. There’s a way they can take to play at the highest level in Ireland and for Ireland.

“Wootton’s a good example. There are other players as well in the provinces at various levels and have got an opportunity, which is one of our major focuses. It’s great to see talent and it’s great to see the talent coming to Ireland but it’s about giving them opportunities.”

Lydon has former international Kevin Maggs and Wayne Mitchell, who previously was on Leinster’s development staff, for company — working off a network that started with the formation of the Exiles and has continued and grown. Lydon says there are circa 240 names of Ireland-qualified players in the UK alone.

The modus operandi is to organise regional trials across the water and then get prospective candidates over here to National Talent Squad camps, and from there to place lads in Irish provincial academies or sub-academies. And if those doors don’t open then monitor them where they are with a view to them possibly coming into the system at a later date, as with Connacht’s James Mitchell.

The fruits of these labours were presented in the shape of the Exiles under 18 side that played the Leinster Youth side in Donnybrook a few weeks ago. Three things were evident: first, not unusually, the physical advantage enjoyed by the Exiles; second their skill level and organisation; and third the spirit and togetherness of the group. They also had the best player on the field, a scrum-half called Caolan Englefield, of Harlequins, who has already played for the Ireland under 18 side.

But what about hostility from England’s club academies who are sponsored by the RFU? When the game went pro the Exiles’ foot-soldiers found it a good deal harder to get past the gate. Lydon says that position has softened.

“We find more and more clubs are happy to work with us to support the player. If they’re going to stay true to their principles of developing the talent they have then any opportunity such as the NTS camps in Ireland is worth sending lads across for.”

And the swathe of Finegans in the southern hemisphere? Is there a system in place to source them?

“Definitely,” Lydon says. “We have a small team of people that are IQ, as in staff, who are dedicated to identifying and supporting talent, but we’re broadening our horizons. We have friends and contacts in most of the major rugby nations, including Australia. We have IRFU staff who are South African or Australian, so those networks are growing and we intend to make sure we can formalise those agreements. We want to capture talent and to have eyes who can go and look at that local talent, male or female, to see how good they are. It’s great to get footage but it’s even better if you have somebody on the ground who can go and watch them. We’re finding more and more of those.”

The shift from three years’ residency to five years in World Rugby’s Test qualification period has given impetus to this search for the right bloodlines. Clearly we’re behind the curve, but at least moving. Perhaps Joe Lydon might give Owen Finegan a job as a scout.

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