Monday 16 July 2018

Joe Schmidt has power to make an exception

Irish selection policy of freezing out overseas players would soften if more make move away

Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the space of a few days last week Rhys Webb and Simon Zebo were commanding lots of column inches and air time over their respective travel plans.

 The Wales scrumhalf sounded like a lad who had just read the small print and discovered he had got a lot less than he bargained for. As for Zebo, he said nothing aside from the usual stuff about having made a tough decision and looking forward to a new chapter in the life of himself and his family. Two men on similar missions, but with very different backgrounds.

Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo. Photo: Sportsfile

In the case of the Munster fullback there is no small print to quibble over. Indeed, there is no print at all. Rather there is a clear and unambiguous de facto situation that when you board a plane for a club life beyond Ireland's shores the only way you'll be flying home on an international weekend is as a punter. Unless Joe Schmidt sees it differently.

Webb, meantime, is gutted that his days in an international shirt are numbered because he has been caught out by a new regulation from the WRU restricting the national coach to selecting overseas players only when they have 60 caps in the bag.

Ireland and Wales are after the same thing here: retaining players to keep their provinces/regions strong, and protecting those same athletes so they can show up for Test rugby in one piece. But they are going about their business in different ways: Wales legislate; Ireland hedge their bets and deal in the unwritten.

The attraction of the Irish approach is that, with nothing set in stone, you can bend with the wind. When Johnny Sexton flew the coop to Paris in 2013 Schmidt didn't even have his feet under the table. If he had then Sexton would have been kept here, for what the player wanted - not unlike Roy Keane at his peak in Manchester United - was financial parity with the best paid player (Jamie Heaslip in Ireland's case), which wasn't forthcoming.

If you think of it, the way that negotiation was handled was a salutary lesson for Schmidt. He was still with Leinster at the time, but he could see how Ireland's star turn was having a Six Nations week turned upside down by the torture of last-minute contract negotiations. So that kind of stress needed to be avoided in future.

Moreover, players needed to understand that if they headed off then their Test careers would be put on hold. Schmidt kept picking Sexton but never missed an opportunity to flag up the inconvenience of sharing him with a French club who had zero interest in the fortunes of the France side, never mind the Ireland one. The subtext was that this was a special case.

Thereafter everyone knew where they stood. So Ian Madigan, Marty Moore and Donnacha Ryan signed their deals to leave knowing that it was curtains on the Ireland part of their lives as long as they stayed away.

Consider that when Sexton left the power struggle was still raging between the rugby unions and the English/French clubs. A year later, 2014, the clubs had triumphed, so the mountains of new TV cash that sustained them during the war gave them huge pulling power thereafter.

Despite our predictions of penury in this corner of the world, Ireland have still been able to compete at provincial and international level for two reasons: the production line is good - despite Ulster's contribution being a mile off the pace - and the player drain has been kept to a trickle.

What keeps the players here? The prospect of being in a successful provincial system with which they already identify. And playing in a competitive Ireland side.

The attraction of foreign cash though is hard to pass up. Our Welsh friends tell us Tadhg Beirne turned down a much better financial deal to stay at Scarlets, instead choosing to head to Munster next season. Seemingly, Scarlets intimated they would release him for squad sessions every time they saw Joe Schmidt's number pop up on their screens.

By comparison Wales have it tough. You'd need to be of a certain age to remember Ronnie Drew singing about the value of having a stretch of sea between us and England - It's a sure guarantee that some hour we'll be free. Oh, thank God we're surrounded by water - and it's unlikely he was forecasting how English rugby talent scouts would focus on Wales instead of Ireland.

Proximity saves them the bother of a boat or a plane. And they're filling their boots. Gloucester, Bath, Worcester and Bristol are within spitting distance of the Welsh border. Hartpury College, for example, have Gloucester's training base located beside their first team pitch.

According to the WRU head of performance, Geraint John, the flow of rugby talent out of Wales is in full spate.

"There are 19 players at Hartpury who are eligible for Wales," he told WalesOnline last week. "Cardiff Blues lost seven players to them from their programme this year. English fee-paying schools and colleges are offering free scholarships to our players. When you are offered a £35,000-a year private education for free, it's hard for kids and their parents to say no and we totally understand that.

"What happens is once players are in the English system, they get picked up by club academies who often have links with the colleges. The RFU might argue it's the colleges doing the initial recruitment not them, but they support the club academies that have links with the colleges. The big concern we have is some lads are being discouraged from playing age-grade rugby for Wales by their clubs."

The dilemma for those kids who leave is what to do when it comes to their next contract. If they sign to stay with an English club then the WRU's new regulation - the one that Rhys Webb didn't know was coming when he signed for Toulon - precludes them from playing Test rugby for Wales.

On this side of the water we are largely spared the baby snatching. Instead, the biggest focus is on higher profile players who have already established themselves. Much is made of the shift downwards in recent years of the number of central contracts given out by the IRFU, the theory being that once a player moves from a central contract to a provincial one he becomes more susceptible to a transfer. And, eh, he does.

The IRFU don't comment on their contract strategy never mind the ins and outs of specific deals, or why players with woeful injury profiles are given national deals at all. Privately they contend that there is a raft of criteria involved in making the decisions - injury profile would be one of them - such as age, position, market value, caps.

Whatever, as soon as a player is shifted from a national to a provincial deal two things are inescapable: it tells him he's not as high as he'd like to be on Joe Schmidt's Christmas card list; and the news is even worse for his province as they are going to have to shell out to try and close the financial gap previously filled by head office. If the provincial accountant is told there are maybe two or three players coming off at the same time then the impact is above the line, below the line and anywhere else that matters.

"Let's see if we can sign Shifty McFast from Australia for next season . . . "

"Hmm perhaps not - we have two un-budgeted wage bills on our system courtesy of the IRFU."

When provinces can't close that gap then the player is more likely to have his head turned. In that case the union are gambling that the support system they have worked so hard to put in place will win the argument for them. Ireland is unique in having simultaneously competitive provincial and national sides with optimum player welfare programmes - you didn't see any of the Irish Lions having to hurry back to work after New Zealand.

So far the IRFU's point has been compelling, and the expected player drain has been a trickle. Where it will become really interesting is if the next cab off the rank happens to be a top of the range SUV or a sturdy saloon.

Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong would be in the former category, albeit with different specs. And different timelines. Murray is tied down until after the 2019 World Cup but it will be interesting to see if Schmidt softens his home-based-only policy before then. Furlong is out of contract at the end of this season, as are CJ Stander, Garry Ringrose and Peter O'Mahony.

Some would argue that our playing pool is too shallow not to be hauling lads back in for Test duty when they are playing their club rugby abroad. For example, the Scotland team that beat Ireland in Murrayfield last season had five players, including captain and chief points-scorer Greig Laidlaw, then earning their club corn out of the country.

So why don't we do the same? Because it would tear a hole in the fabric of our provincial system. And our supply line is, currently, functional. The test will come around after the next World Cup. At that point Rhys Webb will be watching it on TV. As for Simon Zebo, he should actually take consolation from the make-up of the Ireland squad announced last week.

His omission was an example of Schmidt toeing the party line, just as the inclusion of Bundee Aki illustrated the coach's devotion to pragmatism. With the latter he was observing the World Rugby regulations in picking for Ireland a player who patently is not Irish, but whose three years' residency qualifies him.

When we start counting down to Japan then the same process will unfold. And if Schmidt thinks Zebo's inclusion will enhance Ireland's chances of winning then he will dial the digits for France. He will argue it's a special case. And no rules will have been broken.

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