Saturday 19 October 2019

IRFU replacing one flawed system with another

New plans for the professional game are a recipe for confusion, says Brendan Fanning

It's not just turkeys who get bad news in Christmas week. If you are running professional rugby in Leinster, Ulster or Munster then, like the birds who live in big barns with the light on all the time, you'll be concerned about the future.

Certainly the timing looks suspicious. We are told the only reason hard news like this was released in the softest week of the year was because the decision was made on the issue just over a week ago, so better to get it out now. If the I's had been dotted and T's crossed then managing this information flow would be a whole lot easier. That they haven't tells us the IRFU haven't thought this one through. Not even half way. Rather they put the boot to the floor, told the provinces that the consultation was over, and issued the press release.

Let's recap on its contents, a radical four-point plan which involved the following: limiting the provinces to one NIE (non-Ireland eligible) player in any position, nationally, ie if Munster have a South African loosehead then Leinster and Ulster must have Irish ones; NIE contracts can't be extended, so when your Kiwi tighthead is through he must be replaced with an Irishman; any late or temporary additions to a squad because of injury (for example Stefan Terblanche this season in Ulster) must be Irish; and all NIEs will be restricted to one position -- thus ruling out utility backs, blocking the progress of more than one Irish player at a time.

That's quite a shift of the goalposts. In explaining the reasoning behind this, the IRFU took out their maths copybook and pointed to the sum which they say doesn't add up -- 81 per cent of the income comes from the national team, and 41 per cent of the outgoings is on the provinces. So to protect the hand that feeds they need to ensure a better blood flow.

It is inescapable that the provinces, through the Heineken Cup, paved the way for our success at Test level. While the goals of national and provincial teams are often incompatible, they are also inseparable. So a pogrom on overseas players isn't going to work, for the provinces have come to rely on them.

The problem is that this reliance is often flawed. Did Ulster for example really need to hire a retired -- with good reason -- Springbok this season when an injury crisis loomed? Where would Jonny Sexton and Mike Ross be in their careers if Felipe Contepomi and Stan Wright had not suffered injuries which opened the door for them?

The provinces wanted the status quo. They were happy with the initially proposed cap of five NIEs per squad, but while that would have kept their options wide open in bringing in quality from abroad, it would do nothing to prevent the logjam at prop, where currently we have six NIEs spread across the top three squads. Unless forced to change this recruitment policy they would have continued it, for in their pursuit of European and Celtic trophies it has served them well.

Over the next few years we'll find out how they can cope by being weaned off it. That process will be painful. There will be escape hatches where they can plead their cases and the union would be daft not to listen to them, but in the first place we fear the same union haven't figured out the process by which a province will be told they have won the race ahead of the other two to sign an overseas player. Who for example will decide that a province is sufficiently tooled up at tighthead, and that someone else can recruit in that area instead?

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The principle of stocking the Irish system with mostly Ireland-qualified players is not only sound, but should be pursued. It has implications however far below the professional game. If you want to go that way then you'll need a pathway that isn't blocked by schools who consider teenage players to be their property; a system that allows some sort of scrummaging below the age of 19, if you want more props; a system that has much closer ties between the professional and domestic games, which the IRFU are busy trying to separate. So that system ain't ours.

In 2004, the union gave us a plan for the AIL that was such a crock it was, mercifully, scrapped before it was rolled out. Now they have rushed out a new model for the pro game without figuring if it can get past the start line. It might need an overhaul to see the New Year.

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