Sunday 21 July 2019

The wild geese

With Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan flying the flag, there is more Irish interest than ever before in the French Top 14, but the star names are just the tip of the iceberg and don’t come close to telling the complete story as more than 50 Irish professionals are plying their trade abroad this season

Simon Zebo playing for Racing 92. Photo: Anthony Dibon/Icon Sport via Getty Images
Simon Zebo playing for Racing 92. Photo: Anthony Dibon/Icon Sport via Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The stated goal of the Irish Rugby Football Union is to keep the best Irish-qualified players playing in Ireland.

By and large, they have been successful and, when Joe Schmidt selects the squad for next year's World Cup in Japan, he will have almost all of his key men to choose from.

No system is watertight, however, and some players inevitably slip through the net.

Others choose to leave their home country in order to impress abroad and get a move back home a la Tadhg Beirne, while there are those who are told they have no future at their chosen province and decide to revive their career elsewhere.

This year, there is the unique case of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding who have been cut loose in high-profile circumstances.

They have decamped to France, where a host of Irish players have featured in the three weeks of Top 14 action to date.

Perpignan’s Paddy Jackson. Photo: Raymond Roig/AFP/Getty
Perpignan’s Paddy Jackson. Photo: Raymond Roig/AFP/Getty

Simon Zebo is already up and running with his first try for Racing alongside Donnacha Ryan, Jackson has been leading the Perpignan backline while the Munster trio of Dave Foley, Paddy Butler and Sean Dougall have been part of a promising start at Pau.

In England, Bristol's Ian Madigan is the biggest Irish name in the playing pool while a host of players are operating in the second-tier Championship.

Exodus

A couple of seasons ago, Schmidt railed at suggestions that he had "an exodus" on his hands as Marty Moore and Madigan departed and a number of key players considered moves abroad.

Ian Madigan in action for Bristol against Bath’s Jamie Roberts. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Ian Madigan in action for Bristol against Bath’s Jamie Roberts. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

The coach was correct and last summer saw international prospects return to the fold with Moore now at Ulster and Beirne in Munster.

Indeed, there is reason to believe that the numbers of Irish players abroad may remain static or even decrease in the years to come as a result of the tightening restrictions in overseas players in France and England - where the salary cap is also a stumbling block.

This summer saw two Cork youngsters, Eoghan Barrett and Ben Roche, go straight from Christians to Pau's academy in a move that would see them count as French-qualified under the JIFF rules on home-grown players that restrict the number of foreigners selected on a weekly basis.

They have a long way to go and the focus, as ever, will be on the small number of big names operating in the top clubs. The biggest stars will always be in demand and when contract-renewal season gets under way there will be the usual speculation over the futures of Ireland's best players.

In each of the last two summers, one of Ireland's leading lights has made the jump. Before their moves to Racing 92, both Donnacha Ryan and Zebo were starters for Munster and Ireland and both would be in contention for Japan if they had remained on these shores.

Life has gone on just fine without them though, and the image of Ryan watching Ireland's Grand Slam on the big screen at Racing's U-Arena last March might have given some of his erstwhile international colleagues food for thought.

But the Tipperary second-row did star in his club's run to the European Champions Cup final and the Parisians are one of the favourites to go all the way on two fronts this time around.

At one of the richest clubs in the world, Ryan and Zebo are well-rewarded at Racing.

With a television deal worth €97m over four years from Canal+, the French league is booming and the clubs can attract All Blacks like Aaron Cruden who earns a reported salary of €800,000.

Top 14 budgets dwarf those in England where clubs operate under a salary cap of €7.75m, with the option of signing two marquee names on top.

Although the IRFU's central control of their province's budgets and the central contracting scheme muddies the waters here, the budgets of the leading Irish sides are just below their English counterparts.

Although there are a handful of Irish internationals playing abroad, the vast majority of those who leave do so in search of opportunity.

On any given weekend, there are only 92 match-day spots with the four Irish sides and, so, some talented operators feel they must leave to get game-time.

More than 30 Irish players will feature in the English Championship this term, with seven lining up in the French PROD2.

The wages are certainly not eye-watering by any means; players in the English second-tier are earning between €20,000-€40,000 per season, while the range is bigger in the French equivalent where budgets vary hugely and players can take home anything between €30,000 and €120,000 each season.

The presence of a lucrative chomage, or unemployment benefit, is another attractive incentive for finishing their careers in France.

Some, like former Ireland second-row Dan Tuohy at Vannes and prop Jamie Hagan at Beziers, are coming towards the end, while others like former Munster second-row John Madigan at Massy and out-half Steve McMahon at Carcassonne are looking to breathe new life into their careers.

Leaving the provinces for a life in the club game can be a culture shock, particularly for those who move to France.

After winning the Heineken Cup with Munster, Denis Fogarty spent five seasons in the ProD2, first signing for Jeremy Davidson's Aurillac before joining Agen for two seasons and finishing at Aix-en-Provence.

Experience

Now back in Ireland and coaching with Cork Constitution and the Munster U-20s, the former hooker recalls the experience.

"It was a massive shock to what I was used to," he said. "The facilities, the strength and conditioning, the nutrition were far behind what we had at Munster.

"The change of life was a big shock, you're in a bubble here in Ireland and you only realise that when you leave.

"The players socialise together, eat and train together - we did everything and you don't know anything different until you're gone.

"But at the same time it was good to get out, mentally, experience a more chilled-out environment.

"You have to dive into the culture, the language and that is appreciated. You can't expect the same standards and don't even attempt to change it. Even trying to get lads to do five press-ups after dropping a ball doesn't go down well.

"I came from Munster where we were at the top and you've a burning feeling to keep the standards high, but it's their way and that's it.

"The other side of it is the life-style, the weather, the time off in a beautiful part of the world - I'd recommend it, it was brilliant for me. But you can never experience what we had in Munster anywhere else."

Fogarty believes the influx of overseas coaches has helped change that culture higher up the ladder in the Top 14 and there has been Irish influence there as well.

Bernard Jackman has spoken about his difficulty trying to change the culture at Grenoble during his stint as head coach and that challenge will be there for Paul O'Connell during his first season with Stade Francais.

It will help that he has his good friend Mike Prendergast alongside him. An assistant to Jackman at Grenoble, Prendergast was with Oyonnax last season and is well-used to the French way of doing things.

While the Irish union has been determined to keep its players at home, it has a more hands-off approach to a growing number of coaches who have taken up positions in England and France.

Mark McCall is a hugely successful director of rugby at Saracens and the English champions are one of six clubs with at least one Irish coach on their books while Declan Kidney is back in charge of London Irish's promotion push.

In France, Davidson is back in ProD2 with Brive after a season in Bordeaux, Stade have their contingent and in the PRO14 Michael Bradley, Jackman and former Ulster assistant Allen Clarke are in head-coaching positions with Zebre, Dragons and Ospreys respectively.

Ronan O'Gara is flying the flag in New Zealand, while Conor O'Shea is with the Italian national side after his success with Harlequins.

Some of them are using their time abroad as a long-term investment with a view to a move home, others are happy where they are. No doubt, the union are monitoring their progress closely.

The focus, as ever, is on the players however.

Zebo is already building a highlights reel with Racing and has a very good chance of silverware alongside Ryan, while there will be plenty of focus on how Jackson and Olding fare after their year out of the game.

After being acquitted of rape at the end of a lengthy, highly public trial both men were released by the IRFU and they will be desperate to get their careers back on track.

If they do, they can aspire to higher ranked clubs than the ones they are plying their trade with.

Madigan will relish the higher profile of the English top flight after a year in the Championship, but like the other three members of the 2015 World Cup squad now playing abroad, he'll know that his chances of making Japan are slim, bordering on none.

That is the decision they made by leaving and it will be far from their minds as they negotiate the weekly rough and tumble of life in the pro leagues outside Ireland's player welfare systems.

Irish Independent

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