Saturday 26 May 2018

Ewan MacKenna: Nationhood exchanged for wallet size - Use of project players is just a form of financial doping

Jared Payne (left), Bundee Aki (centre) and CJ Stander (right).
Jared Payne (left), Bundee Aki (centre) and CJ Stander (right).

Ewan MacKenna

The truth tends to sound like hate to those that hate the truth.

And for the latest evidence in support of this theory, it took no more than a social media post.

It was last week that Ultimate Rugby, a company part-owned by Brian O'Driscoll, stared down the elephants lounging across the sofas.

“On a scale of CJ Stander to Guinness, how Irish is Bundee Aki?” they asked online.

With that, rationale and reason were burnt and buried in the backlash to the point that the website apologised, removed the amusing but important query, and blamed a young employee for telling it as it is.

Not only had the messenger been shot, he'd been tortured by our rugby mob first.

On Saturday, Aki will likely become the latest Irish international we've purchased, in what amounts to an insult to many of those who have been handed caps across the generations and an even greater insult to the Irishmen that miss out on being rewarded as a result of our policy. It seems there's nothing that can't be bought and sold anymore.

The New Zealander isn't the first and won't be the last in an era where we cheapen the national team and the international game by pursuing project players, but if Aki wants to learn a very Irish trait then it's this: our defence often amounts to a simple 'sure they're all at it', as if the notion of taking a stand and taking the lead is beyond us.

Aki seems to be a likable person. There's a video online of him hurling his medal into the singing Galway crowd after winning the Pro12 in 2016 in an act of selflessness and real connection with place and people. And those that have come before him from Jared Payne to Richardt Strauss to Stander seem stand-up guys. It takes curiosity and courage - to go with the talent - to go abroad and make a life in an alien environment but there's a problem: none of those traits make them Irish.

No so long ago, victory in the international sphere was to be savoured because of the who and the how. It was us beating them via our efforts against theirs. More and more though, that has been traded for almost a Barbarians-style mish-mash of whoever we can afford. It leads us to asking what's the point of this anymore? If you want a collection of players bought in, you go to the club game so why waste time on a second-rate version of this, one that is busy lying to itself and to its public?

The great George Carlin had a wonderful line about where you are from.

“Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or obtain on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth,” he said.

“Being Irish isn't a skill, it's a f**king genetic accident. You wouldn't say I'm proud to be 5'11; I'm proud to have a predisposition for colon cancer.”

Indeed, that nationality in general isn't as defined as it once was is a good thing, but it means in international sport that it needs to be more defined than ever before. Instead though, the IRFU move away from that, just to try and get ahead.

Over the last few days, the Rugby League World Cup would have been ridiculed here had anyone cared enough, even as a so-called Irish team punched way above pre-tournament predictions. But we never so much as glanced at Ireland's efforts against Italy and Papua New Guinea because they weren't really Ireland's efforts. More and more, union deserves that same reaction and treatment.

With Rob Herring in the squad for the November tests, there is at least a blood link there and that is a box ticked, something we can look at and say it makes sense and that makes it okay. With others, there are genuine claims that this was our work. Joey Carbery may have grown up in New Zealand but the efforts of those in Athy RFC and Blackrock College made him a product of here. Ultan Dillane is no different as, despite being in Paris until seven years of age, from Tralee through to West Munster under-16s to the national training squad, he's a product of this environment.

Can we make the same claim or take the same pride in Aki and Stander amongst more and more purchases? No.

Elsewhere in our sport, from Trent Johnston in cricket to Sanita Puspure in rowing, there was a natural feeling about their integration into our society. Multicultural Ireland is something we can be proud of, and that they like it here is something we can be proud of too.

But representing Ireland came as a result of setting up a life here, not the other way around. So while it's hard to define what exactly is right when it comes to such an area, it's a lot easier to say what's wrong. And project players are wrong as it feels like plagiarism, like taking someone else's work and passing it off as our own.

From 2020 there will be a shift in World Rugby policy with five years rather than three needed in a country to claim eligibility, but even that feels dirty. Do we just go shopping that bit earlier or have a little more patience when waiting for what we paid for?

Look at it this way – the Blue Bulls in South Africa have said Stander moved to Munster as they couldn't match the offer and do you really think Aki is in Connacht for some calling that isn't financial? If you don't believe us, look at the infamous photo of Ben Te'o, hand on heart in a green jersey, trying to sell us all the bullshit with that one image.

What this is all descending towards international rugby becoming about games between league XVs rather than countries - the Top 14 versus the Pro14 versus the Premiership. And still our current players have always stood up, toeing the line of their PR department, refusing to acknowledge this for the financial doping that it is, as nationhood is exchanged for wallet size.

“I’ve played with three guys that weren’t born here,” said Jonny Sexton this time last year, missing the entire point.

“They’ve given as much to the Irish jersey as I have or whoever you want to pick.”

Meanwhile just this week Keith Earls said he cannot wait to play with Aki given his brilliance, ignoring the very issue at hand.

But would they feel the same had this happened when they were trying to break through? What if the next great out-half we produce finds the door shut by an import, or if the cover is closed on the next wonderful story out of Moyross before an important chapter has finished? Some will say this is negative but what's negative about wanting Irish rugby players that are good enough to have the opportunity to play for the Irish rugby team. Surely that is the most simplistic positivity.

When Stander talked about his own history, his words were telling and apply across the board to these project players.

“I was about 12, and he didn't say he wanted to see me play for the Springboks,” he recalled of his granddad.

“He said, 'I want to see you play international rugby,' and I didn't really know what he meant at that stage. But yeah, it worked out, I got a contract from Munster and the first guy I told was my granddad. And he said, 'As long as you don't go to England.'”

For the easily impressed, that counted in terms of him suddenly being Irish, up there with learning the national anthem and saying nice things about our nation to sooth the long-standing and crippling insecurity we ooze. But he added another line we must remember.

“I am South African, not Irish.”

That was it. What should have been the first and last point in the whole discussion.

There was always something special about the Irish rugby team. In terms of our mainstream sports, to have a sideline out through the Troubles and into the peace process, to have a clash of cultures come together in one dressing room, rugby was a great example of the occasional power of sport. Despite violence, they carried on, shoulder to shoulder, long before cheesy songs were needed to market that point. That's the reputation that is being tarnished and for what?

David Nucifora and the IRFU may think they are helping our chances of winning by continuing on down this morally bankrupt path, but more and more their imports are making sure that we can never win.

left pod.jpg

Subscribe to The Left Wing, Independent.ie'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

Online Editors

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport