Monday 19 August 2019

10 best imports to Irish provinces

As Ruan Pienaar prepares to put on the Ulster jersey for the last time, Ruaidhri O’Connor looks at where the Springbok rates among international stars who’ve played here

Isa Nacewa has always given his all to the Leinster jersey and likes the province so much that he came out of retirement to return to these shores. Photo: Sportsfile
Isa Nacewa has always given his all to the Leinster jersey and likes the province so much that he came out of retirement to return to these shores. Photo: Sportsfile
Doug Howlett (Munster). Photo: Sportsfile
Ruan Pienaar (Ulster). Photo: Sportsfile
John Langford (Munster). Photo: Sportsfile
Felipe Contepomi (Leinster). Photo: Sportsfile
Johann Muller (Ulster). Photo: Sportsfile
Rocky Elsom (Leinster). Photo: Sportsfile
Jim Williams (Munster). Photo: Sportsfile
Nathan Hines (Leinster). Photo: Sportsfile
Trevor Halstead (Munster). Photo: Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O’Connor

They are something of an endangered species, but the overseas star has played a major role in the success of the provinces in the professional age.

Few have had an impact quite like the one Ruan Pienaar has had in Ulster, but the IRFU have decided that his time has come and on Saturday he will take to the Ravenhill turf for the final time.

His departure sees one of the great signings depart these shores and begs the question: where does he sit in the pantheon of great overseas signings?

For the purposes of this list, we have omitted 'special project' players who have been recruited to play for Ireland, meaning CJ Stander and Bundee Aki, for example, have not been considered.

1 Isa Nacewa (Leinster)

He wasn't the most high-profile arrival when Michael Cheika lured him to Leinster in 2008, but his role in the province's subsequent success is unquestioned.

A driver of standards behind the scenes, he collected three Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup and a Guinness PRO12 before retiring. He returned to the province in 2015 and soon assumed the captaincy, playing a key role in the province's resurgence.

2 Doug Howlett (Munster)

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Still the All Blacks' top try scorer, Howlett's arrival after the 2007 World Cup shows the kind of pulling power Munster had during their golden era.

He won a Heineken Cup in his first season and later added a PRO12 to his collection, captaining the province before being forced to retire with injury.

Off the pitch, his professionalism drew praise from Munster's Ireland stars who paid tribute to the example he set.

3 Ruan Pienaar (Ulster)

The outpouring of angst that greeted his departure sums up how highly the Ulster fans regard Pienaar who somehow leaves the province without having won a medal.

Signed in 2010, the World Cup winner helped lift standards to ensure that Ulster were always competitive and reached the latter stages of tournaments every season until his last.

His consistent excellence makes him an undisputed success, despite the lack of silverware.

4 John Langford (Munster)

The Australian second-row was a key figure in bridging the gap between amateurism and professionalism and turning Munster into a European force during his three seasons.

5 Felipe Contepomi (Leinster)

A fans' favourite, Contepomi lit up the Leinster backline during the 2000s, helping Leinster build their way from also-rans to European champions. Won a PRO12, but a serious knee injury ruled him out of the 2009 European final.

6 Johann Muller (Ulster)

Like Pienaar, the genial Springbok second-row left Ulster without a trophy but his influence was felt during his time as captain. A leader and world-class lock, his performances were excellent.

7 Rocky Elsom (Leinster)

It was just one season, but what a season. The Australian was signed to propel Leinster to the 2009 Heineken Cup and got the job done with an abrasive, all-action approach.

8 Jim Williams (Munster)

Another key man in the Munster story who had departed by the time success arrived, Wallaby Williams' influence was felt in the province where he assumed the captaincy on arrival in 2002 and was a key leader throughout his four seasons.

9 Nathan Hines (Leinster)

Australian-born Scottish international who helped drive Leinster's success from the engine room during his two-year stay.

10 Trevor Halstead (Munster)

The South African centre was all about substance over style, but he played a crucial role in getting Munster over the line in 2006.

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