Monday 26 August 2019

Ireland's project players under the spotlight in South Africa

CJ Stander will be the centre of attention if he plays against his native country in Cape Town on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
CJ Stander will be the centre of attention if he plays against his native country in Cape Town on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ireland touched down in Cape Town yesterday and enjoyed a light run-out at the Cape Stadium and a dip in the Atlantic Ocean to help acclimatise themselves to their new surrounds and get over the effects of the 10-hour flight.

Today, they welcome the media for the first time since arriving, and much of the local interest is set to surround the trio of South African players in the squad.

The curiosity around CJ Stander, Richardt Strauss and Quinn Roux should come as no surprise to the touring party. If another nation arrived in Dublin with three Irish players in tow, they would be the centre of attention.

Of the three, Strauss has already faced his native country - he made his debut opposite his cousin Adriaan, now the Springbok captain.

Stander is almost certainly going to start the first Test on Saturday, while Schmidt has suggested that Roux will play at some point despite his struggle to get into the Connacht match-day squad for their Pro12 success.

All three have their reasons for deciding to move across the world in search of a new route into the international game.

Stander eloquently explained his decision in these pages on Saturday, but they may find a less sympathetic audience at Newlands this weekend.

Certainly, Strauss came in for some serious treatment back in 2012, but all three will be steeled for the experience.

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Jared Payne is the other 'special project' player in the squad, but being a New Zealander he should be in for a quiet few weeks in comparison.

Still, the presence of so many familiar faces is likely to be a prominent talking point in the coming weeks, particularly after Agustin Pichot went public with his desire for the three-year residency law to be extended to five to stop the likes of Stander and Payne from switching countries.

Whether the former Argentina scrum-half turned World Rugby vice-chairman has support in the corridors of power is questionable. A review of the rule after last year's World Cup found little interest in change.


"I think the day that the integrity of the international game. . . that people don't believe they're watching a bona fide international, then you've got problems. We've got no sign of that," World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said last month.

"There is no research or evidence that would back up a movement up. That could change over time. The integrity of the image of the sport, as an international sport, with bona fide players and countries playing against each other, is definitely intact."

Unsurprisingly, the IRFU are against change. This autumn, they will welcome Connacht's Kiwi flanker Jake Heenan to the fold, while 2017 will see a bumper crop of 'projects' enter the system as Tom McCartney, Bundee Aki and Wiehahn Herbst become Irish-qualified. Ben Te'o would have joined them had he opted to remain with Leinster.

Since Joe Schmidt became head coach, 22 players have been handed Ireland debuts. Of those, five qualified on residency grounds and another two came from outside the Irish system and qualified through Irish heritage.

For the union, it's all a numbers game and you can forgive Schmidt for wanting to add depth in key positions as IRFU performance director David Nucifora adopts a more scientific approach to succession planning.

It was no surprise that Leinster were granted permission to sign scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park from New Zealand given the lack of options behind Conor Murray in the Ireland set-up and the shortage of quality No 9s coming through.

Hooker, tighthead prop and lock are problem positions too and it is quite possible that Ireland's hookers at the 2019 World Cup could all come from the southern hemisphere, with Strauss, McCartney and Rob Herring - who qualifies through an Irish grandparent - in the running.

When their new sponsorship of the Ireland team was announced, the chief executive of Vodafone spoke warmly of the connection between the side and the people as being key to their decision to invest €15m over four years.

Yet, if the proportion of players with overseas accents goes up, is there a danger that that crucial connection could be diminished?

Certainly, the IRFU don't appear to believe it will be a problem.

"I would like to think that if we are working efficiently and the provinces are working effectively and efficiently in their recruitment in these areas, after three years we have guys that were good enough to be able to play international rugby," Nucifora said.

"They (the 'project' players) still have to be able to better than the other Irish players in the system to be able to earn that right. You work with the rules put in front of you and then try and do it as well as you possibly can.

"All you can do once they qualify is start judging them on performance. You judge all the players equally. If they are eligible then they are judged equally with all the other players.

"If it does nothing more than raise the bar of performance in the country, if they don't get picked, but if it has helped lift the standard of the Irish players around them then that is a huge positive as well. There are a couple of ways you can look at this."

With Scotland, France and Wales all happily making the most of the three-year law, the lines of international rugby continue to be blurred. It's hard to blame the players who each have their own reasons for making the decision to move half-way across the world, while the unions will argue that they are acting in their own best interest.

The law is the issue, but as they make the most of it, the IRFU would do well to remember not to undermine their greatest asset - the good-will of their fans.

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