Tuesday 20 November 2018

Neil Francis: Bundee Aki's selection in Joe Schmidt's squad reflects integrity deficit in international game

 

Connacht centre Bundee Aki looks set to be named in the Ireland squad. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht centre Bundee Aki looks set to be named in the Ireland squad. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

At some stage today Joe Schmidt will release the Ireland training squad for the Guinness International series this coming November.

The squad is so large that it is normally more noticeable for who has been excluded. Annoyingly, it is announced in alphabetical order so we have to scan around to see who is in the second-row etc.

The first name on the sheet should be Fualaofi Bundaloo Aki, a man born 27 years ago in Auckland New Zealand of Samoan parents.

He will play for Ireland this November - he will be able to do so because he could hop on an airplane and fly 18,000 kilometres to a place he had never really heard of, stay there for 36 months and get to play international rugby - a level of rugby which he had no chance of playing at in New Zealand.

We seem to be quite happy to accommodate him in his quest to play international for 'somebody'.

This to the detriment of our school, club, academy and provincial systems.

It is wrong, irrespective of how good he is, that an Irishman born and bred here should sit on the sideline while somebody who has no connection whatsoever with this country, other than drawing a large wage, takes his place.

This is wrong - I will tell you why.

Throughout this piece one word will resurface again and again - integrity! The integrity of the international game is slipping away in front of our eyes.

The foundation stone of the Six Nations championship is that when we play England we want Irishmen to represent the 6.6 million people living on this Island to go and do their best against the English.

convenience We don't want to play South African, New Zealand or South Pacific tourists. We can watch the Barbarians or the Pacific Nations championship.

Irishmen versus Englishmen. Men who know what the rivalry really means between these two countries.

This piece is not a jingo-gram about what it means to be Irish. National identity, however, particularly in sport, is not some interchangeable port of convenience.

When you hand out a green jersey you should never, ever compromise the integrity of your nationhood.

We are now at a crossroads in international sport. If you have integrity nothing else matters.

World Rugby decreed that the three-year residency becomes five years but only from 2020 onwards.

We watch in glib fascination as the IRFU hand out jerseys which represent our island to well-paid tourists - some of whom know the words of 'Amhrán na bhFiann' and some who don't.

When it comes to unsettling the foundations of our game I could not think of a more divisive structure than the project player scheme.

How many players have we encouraged to leave their native land and come to Ireland?

They may not ever have had a chance to play for their own country but the Paddies will give you a green jersey really cheap.

For every Nathan White or Rodney Ah You you stifle the development of a Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter.

All the time, energy and money invested and wasted on Quinn Roux and you have James Ryan coming off your own indigenous conveyor belts.

We have plenty of high-grade wingers in this country but somebody decided that the lamentable Gerhard van den Heever should be given an opportunity to play for Ireland.

Munster cut him in 2016 because he had all the flair and panache of The Donald - he now plies his trade for the Yamaha Jubilos in Japan.

There are big calls this November. The 31-year-old Seán Cronin is a vastly superior player to the 32-year-old Tom McCartney.

The 22-year-old Ross Byrne is a far better prospect than the 27-year-old perennially injured Tyler Blyendaal.

Interesting to see the ratio of tourists to Irishmen in the squad today!

On to the kernel of the issue. A lot of the project players brought into this country patently were not good enough to play for Ireland - yet some of them got a few cheap caps. Bundee Aki is clearly good enough to play for Ireland but is that what we base our merit of selection on?

If the Llanelli Scarlets came in with an offer £75k more than Munster and Connacht did for CJ Stander or Aki, the pair of them could be lining out for Wales and learning the lines of 'Bread of Heaven'.

'I really feel at home in West Wales, the people are great rugby people and I feel Welsh' - oh the interchangeability of it all.

Aki's honesty is refreshing on the whole episode. Freely admitting that he wanted to play international rugby but "I actually do not know for which team".

Aki was never going to get a chance to play for his native New Zealand. Let's not fool ourselves here.

Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill are cast in stone and Anton Lienart Brown, Ngani Laumapae and David Havili - the list goes on.

If you are not on the All Blacks radar at the 19-21 age group in New Zealand then you aren't going to make it.

Aki could easily make it for five/six years in Ireland. This November you could have Stander, Payne and Aki playing for Ireland.

How many tourists do we have to have before the fidelity of the team changes?

I have played for the Barbarians - it's great to have all those different voices and cultures in the dressing room and on the pitch but when it is your own country . . .

There is also the small matter of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. Irishmen born and bred. Products of our rugby schools system, playing on this soil since they were small boys. The pair of them are first-choice centre combination.

Moved Ringrose will miss the November Guinness series; he will have a job on his hands getting his place back. Meanwhile, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Darren Cave, Rory Scannell, Noel Reid and Rory O'Loughlin get moved further down the ranks. It is just not right!

People can rush to Aki's defence and say he is a super player. They are right, he is a super player.

Being good enough or being more than good enough is not the point. The prime criteria for being selected to play for Ireland is that you be Irish above all other things.

You can be committed to the cause, but you can be paid to be committed to the cause. You can learn the anthem. You can die for the jersey. Pick a jersey, any jersey and I will die for it.

You can quote rule 8 to me as long as you like but you can't trade out your heritage.

You can't stand your own down for tourists and you can't give your national jersey to people who pick it up on the back of a contract for services.

The green jersey is not for sale.

Irish Independent

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