Tuesday 23 January 2018

Neil Francis: CJ Stander and Jared Payne have undoubted rugby integrity but they're not Irish

Pichot and (inset) Stander
Pichot and (inset) Stander
Ireland’s CJ Stander in action against Wales
‘CJ Stander’s playing ability is not up for discussion: he has always performed to a high level for his adopted country. Nobody questions his commitment. The issue is that he is not Irish.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A week after we lost to Australia in that World Cup quarter-final in 1991, I went to watch the All Blacks play the Wallabies in the semi-final, to see if they could do any better.

It was a top-class game of rugby and in the end it was some mesmerising play from David Campese that separated the sides. I remember during the national anthems, thinking that maybe everyone was still having a drink at the bar.

The game kicked off and there were still vast swathes of empty seats in the stadium. I thought this was very strange. Some of the greatest players of all time were playing in Lansdowne Road, yet the stadium wasn't even two-thirds full. Ticket prices were not an issue - what could be the problem?

The older I got, the more apparent it became. Sport, and rugby in particular, is very parochial. Our sport is quintessentially sectarian - not in the prejudicial sense, but in the sense that Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast people had no real interest in turning up to Lansdowne Road to watch a bunch of Kiwis and Aussies playing each other, no matter how good they were.

Many people in Ireland would have been aware of the rivalry between the two countries. Many others would have known how skilful both sides were. All watching on their televisions that day would have been enthralled by the quality of some of the passages of play, but these teams were not Irish, and entertainment is only a small percentage of the appeal of Test match rugby.

I have said it before: international sport is racism in its purest form. Our best against your best. The bite and the edge of Test match rugby has its appeal in the knowledge that the young men we send out are charged with the responsibility of upholding our values and the traditions of our island. It is why when we beat our Celtic brothers, Wales and Scotland (not this year), it feels good. When we beat England it feels good for months after. When you wear green, these rivalries are in the DNA, and it is a priceless commodity. As long as we are Irishmen or Englishmen, we understand what it means to play each other in a game of untethered physical contact, a game like no other in the world of sport.

What happens when you don't belong?

When Warren Gatland named his Lions squad recently, Ireland managed to get 11 players on the plane. A healthy representation. I am not a fan of rugby tourists, blow-ins or project players gaining recognition with the ultimate honour. Riki Flutey is top of the hit-list here. Jared Payne and CJ Stander both got picked to travel. Payne's selection was a mild surprise, particularly seeing as how Wazza did not think he was good enough to play for Waikato and set him on his way out the door. Stander's consistent displays certainly warranted selection.

At all stages, the pair's playing ability is not up for discussion: they have always performed to a high level for their adopted country. Their rugby integrity too is undoubted. Nobody questions their commitment. The issue is that they are not Irish. Quite often rugby people, whatever platform they choose to express themselves from, misinterpret the fundamental here. Your heritage and the nationhood of this island cannot be bartered for just because the governing body of our sport did not move quickly enough to close off the completely inadequate 36-month residency rule. I have always profoundly and vehemently disagreed with this principle. The green shirt is not for sale. Only Irish people should represent Ireland in our sport, no matter how good a foreign alternative is.

Jared Payne has faced his native New Zealand in an Irish shirt and may do so again in a Lions short this summer

Payne (born and bred in New Zealand) gets to go to play against his own countrymen with a red jersey on his back. In the meantime Garry Ringrose, born and raised in Ireland and a product of the Irish schools and provincial system, is left behind. Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien, born and raised in Ireland, managed to get on the plane but are behind in the queue for Test places. Who is to say that the competitive juices of O'Brien and O'Mahony won't come to the fore as they search in the white hot heat of competition for a Lions Test place; maybe they can produce a supreme effort to take the spot. But Stander has the whip hand here.

Either way, when the careers of Payne and Stander are over they will likely head home to New Zealand and South Africa, and it just doesn't seem right that they will have a Lions or an Ireland jersey hanging up on their wall, thousands of miles away from Ireland. This done on the basis that they could procure the jerseys and all that those jerseys mean, literally because they could get into the country and stay there for 36 months.

There are hundreds of reasons why imports should never get to play for the country in which they ply their trade. To get a sense of why, maybe two little anecdotes can give perspective on the incongruity of the situation.

In my playing days, after a particular Test match I ended up having a few pints with a player who was not born in the country that he had just represented. In a truly bizarre admission, he stated that he hated the country that he lived in and what it stood for, and wasn't gone on most of his team-mates or the people whose jersey he represented. He played for that country and extracted all the benefits of being an international player, because he could. I must say, I had not come across a situation like that before; even if you thought it, it would be folly to admit it to anyone.

I have always felt uncomfortable watching New Zealand or South African-born players shaking hands after the final whistle of a Six Nations game. These players would be on different teams in their own little air bubble. "Oh you got Ireland. Yeah, I went to England."

I talked to one former player a while back at a post-match dinner, where a South African import playing for a Six Nations team spent the night speaking Afrikaans and consorting with the South African team. If you are a guest of the nation, at the very least observe some of the protocols of team camaraderie and who you are supposed to represent.

I was beginning to think, at what stage would the whole residency thing become untenable? France and England's rosters in particular were becoming a joke. Somebody had to do something.

I have always admired Gus Pichot. A brilliant, brilliant player: warrior class and a true ambassador and patriot for his nation. Argentina were the only country in the 2015 Rugby World Cup that had every one of their squad born in the country they were representing. It really shows when they sing their national anthem.

Pichot was only in his role as vice-president a wet day when he announced that he wanted to protect his game. The integrity and credibility of rugby union was under threat, and I believe he had quite a job on his hands to convince some countries, who had deep-rooted, vested interests and who benefited from the influx of residency players.

Pichot played the situation with the same determination and character that he displayed on the field. Italy, France, England and New Zealand would have had reservations and much to lose, but in the end it was a unanimous decision.

The small print is important here and the rule will only be enforced from December 31, 2020 - another three and a half years of plundering other countries' academies and playing stock. The unseemly scramble has started already.

The quid pro quo was that if you play for a country as an under 20, you are no longer bound to that country and you can go off and declare for another country of your choice. This will affect the Welsh the most.

The cynical might say the project players will come two years earlier now, but I don't think so. I think this new initiative puts the brakes on the tourists and nation-hoppers, and credibility is now restored. In the next several years, when we play France we will actually get to play against Frenchmen, not Fijian tourists or South African economic refugees. Bravo Gus!

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