Friday 20 September 2019

Comment: Why can't an Irishman abroad be picked but a foreign player in Ireland can?

Bundee Aki and (inset) Simon Zebo
Bundee Aki and (inset) Simon Zebo
Zebo leaves a void for one of the many hungry young guns to fill and the show will go on. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

International rugby is an increasingly confusing place.

The simple beauty of the best of our lot taking on the best of theirs has been lost in a muddle of eligibility rules, union diktats and the best professional players being taken out of the arena because they have chosen to earn more money.

Cash is king and this career is a short one, increasingly so given the serious dangers of playing the game, but earning good money and playing international rugby should not be mutually exclusive.

Right now, the IRFU seems to think they are.

Step back, for a moment, and think about the two big calls in the Ireland squad named by Joe Schmidt yesterday.

Simon Zebo, a proud Corkman, who has chosen to go and live and work in Paris, has effectively been told to sling his hook at 27. No more will his talent be showcased in the international arena.

Bundee Aki, a New Zealander who speaks proudly of his Samoan heritage, is selected at the first available opportunity having qualified as a result of living in Galway for three years.

In 2014, the Aucklander spoke honestly about his motivations for moving to Connacht; outlining that he felt an All Black cap was beyond him and, while Samoa was always going to be an option, biding his time for three years and playing for his adopted country was a more lucrative option.

International Rugby Newsletter

Rugby insights and commentary from our renowned journalists like Neil Francis, Will Slattery, Alan Quinlan & Cian Tracey.

Both players moved for the money, one is being punished and the other rewarded.

Schmidt is known for his ruthlessness, but given he has also jettisoned Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe for the upcoming November internationals and has doubts over the fitness of Rob Kearney, the decision to cut Zebo seems unnecessarily cold.

After all, he remains a Munster player for the remainder of this season and has so much to offer.

But, the World Cup in 2019 is clearly the pre-eminent factor in all of Schmidt's decisions and Zebo's impending move to Racing 92 removes him from the equation.

The coach is also sending a message to the other players whose contracts expire at the end of this season.

Since he took over, the New Zealander has only picked one overseas-based player for his squad. When Johnny Sexton announced he was leaving, Schmidt was still the Leinster coach and when he took over the Ireland job the gap between the Parisian-based out-half and his rival No 10s was vast.

Retaining the best Irish players is the IRFU's priority.

Between Sexton's return and the departure of Donnacha Ryan and now Zebo, the carrot of a union contract, the player welfare scheme and international caps appeared to be successful in keeping the best players at home.

Sure, Marty Moore and Ian Madigan were being overlooked but Ireland were surviving without them and they were hardly tearing up trees as it was.

Those two players, prominent members of the squads that won the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations, watched on from abroad as more and more overseas signings won caps for their adopted nations.

Presuming he will make his debut next month, Aki will become the eighth so-called 'Special Project' player to play for Ireland since Richardt Strauss faced the Springboks in 2012.

Strauss was given his debut by Declan Kidney, while Schmidt has capped six players who qualified on residency subsequently.

Only two, CJ Stander and Jared Payne, have been regulars in the team but Aki is in a similar bracket to the pair and is likely to be a stalwart in the coming seasons.

No one could begrudge these individuals their right to play for their adopted nation.

Stander wears his heart on his sleeve and has been taken into Irish fans' hearts. Payne is a colder fish, but he almost lost a kidney when playing for his country last year.

If Aki brings the same commitment to Ireland as he has done to Connacht in recent seasons, fans will soon forgive his lack of Irish heritage. His honesty should count in his favour.

"I have enjoyed Irish culture and stuff but it is wrong for me to say I am Irish. I can say that I have enjoyed the culture and the environment I am in, in Ireland," he said last year.

"For me to say I am Irish that is wrong for me to say because I was not born here. That is for them and it is not for me to take away from the guys who were born here and that who want to play for the Irish and who are Irish.

"I am just here at Connacht and my ambition is to play international (rugby). I like taking in the culture and stuff like as for being an Irish person it is wrong to say that I am Irish."

With the eligibility window being extended from three to five years in 2020, the likelihood is that this issue is not one we'll be talking about in 10 years' time.

The union would argue that they are simply trying to deepen a shallow playing pool and with the 'project' route being closed, they are pouring resources into finding players who qualify to play for Ireland through their parentage.

Six of those have been capped by Schmidt, including Kieran Marmion and Kieran Treadwell who were included in the squad named yesterday.

The IQ Rugby programme is headed by Joe Lydon and involves former international Kevin Maggs acting as a scout to try and identify and recruit promising young players in rival nations' systems. All the while, perfectly good Irish-born players like Ryan, Zebo, Madigan and Moore are over-looked.

Every player who leaves Ireland knows that they are effectively kissing their international careers goodbye.

Sexton was the outlier, but he struggled to balance the two commitments and being out of the Irish system, where the union monitor their players' minutes to try and stave off injury, took its toll.

Given the stock he places on the detailed preparation his players put in together in camp and on the Carton House training camp, the idea that a starter would have to head back to France or England midway through training weeks to play for their clubs doesn't sit well with Schmidt.

If he were involved in a Six Nations with Ireland during his time in France, Zebo would be back in Paris for Top 14 games during the down-weeks when his team-mates would be resting.

Ironically, given it is the major focus of the current window and will frame all rugby between now and 2019, the window before a World Cup is the one time when Schmidt would have unfettered access to his overseas players.

But the groundwork for that tournament is already being laid and Zebo is not going to be part of that process. Aki is.

So, at 27, one of the most skilful Irish players of his generation says goodbye to the international arena he lit up so much.

Similar situations are happening across the world - just look at the names missing from the Springbok squad that will visit these shores in a few weeks' time. No one seems to have a perfect solution.

Zebo leaves a void for one of the many hungry young guns to fill and the show will go on.

Aki, meanwhile, gets a chance to earn a green jersey and fulfil the destiny he chose for himself back in 2014 when he moved to Ireland.

It won't sit well with some who will pose the question why can't an Irishman abroad be picked but a foreign player in Ireland can?

Because Joe Schmidt and the IRFU say so is the answer.


left pod.jpg

Subscribe to The Left Wing,'s Rugby podcast, with Luke Fitzgerald and Will Slattery for the best discussion and analysis each week. From in depth interviews with some of Irish rugby's biggest stars to unmatched insights into the provinces and the national team, The Left Wing has all your rugby needs covered.

Listen and subscribe to The Left Wing on iTunes and Soundcloud

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport