Irish set-up the winner as IRFU launch new foreign policy
But the move may cause headaches for provincial ‘big three’ from 2013, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor
YOU won't have felt anything, but the foundations beneath Irish rugby shifted yesterday.
In the union's luxurious suite at the back of the West Stand at Lansdowne Road, the IRFU's heaviest hitters, Philip Browne and Eddie Wigglesworth, laid out a blueprint for the future that will have ramifications around Ravenhill, Thomond Park and the RDS in the coming years.
There can be no doubting the impact of foreign players on Irish rugby since the dawn of professionalism, but as of yesterday, their influence is to be curtailed. The 'National Player Succession Strategy' is the type of title that could only set a blazer's pulse racing, but when the provincial coaches read its contents, they are unlikely to appreciate what they see.
From the start of the 2013/14 season, new restrictions will be placed on the provinces' recruitment of overseas players in a move IRFU chief executive Browne described "critical" to the future success of rugby at international level.
"Everyone involved in rugby, whether they be administrators, coaches, players or pundits recognises that we cannot allow a situation to develop whereby our provinces become overly dependent on foreign players," he said.
"Because, in the long run, that creates a real problem for the national team, it's not a model that we want to pursue and it is not a sustainable model."
Both the provincial and international management teams have been consulted in this decision, but it's clearly the Irish set-up who will benefit in the long-term as more Irish qualified players will be exposed to higher quality rugby for longer, which will be of huge benefit to Declan Kidney and his successors.
But the changes will undoubtedly cause headaches at provincial level and could impact on the attractiveness of coaching roles in future as the edicts from above reaches new levels.
So, what changes are the IRFU making to their contractual model and what impact will those changes have?
One non-Irish eligible (NIE) player only in each of the 15 field positions across the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster, ie one foreign player allowed across all three teams per position.
This is the change that will have provincial administrators and coaches losing sleep over Christmas as they contemplate a world where their new glamour signing from New Zealand could have his move scuppered because a rival province already have a player in that position from overseas.
From September 2013, what director of rugby Wigglesworth described as the "big three" provinces will have to co-ordinate their import strategy to comply with the union's plan.
Connacht, he explained, are at a different stage of development are exempt for the time being. There are currently 18 non-Irish eligible players in the squads of the 'big three'.
Of those players, eight are in what the IRFU see as a desirable position of being the only import in their position in the country. But in both propping positions and at left-wing, there are currently duplications, with two looseheads, four tightheads and two left wingers registered from abroad.
"If you look at it in reverse," said Wigglesworth, "it means two suitably experienced Irish eligible players across the three provinces. The current example would be (Cian) Healy in Leinster, (Tom) Court in Ulster and (Wian) du Preez in Munster."
Of course, Healy is backed up by South African Heinke van der Merwe currently, meaning that the talented Springbok, a key member of Joe Schmidt's armoury, would lose out and be forced to move on in order to make way for the likes of Lansdowne's Jack O'Connell in order to give the youngster an opportunity.
"We can't put out players who have no experience of playing at the highest level of the club game," Browne said. "We have to have them playing at that level if they are going to perform for the national team."
The problem will come when two provinces have the need for players in the same position and don't want to give way. The IRFU will have final say -- and will make exceptions in certain circumstances -- but it's set to frustrate the province who miss out on what it believes is a crucial signing.
For the season 2013/14 and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player's contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad.
This is another development set to give the administrators and coaches around the provinces nightmares as they face the prospect of losing prized assets at the end of their three-year contracts.
While Leinster will certainly be weakened by the enforced departure of the likes of Isa Nacewa, it's pertinent that his place on the right wing last weekend against Bath meant that a trio of highly rated young Irish backs -- Fionn Carr, Andrew Conway and David Kearney -- were relegated to the British & Irish Cup tie with London Welsh on Sunday.
So, when Nacewa's contract expires, Leinster will be forced to let him go. The same goes for the imports at all three provinces' imports, meaning that Ruan Pienaar, John Afoa and Doug Howlett will all be free to go at the end of their contracts.
The benefit for Ireland will come when Ulster are forced to start with Paul Marshall and Declan Fitzpatrick in the Heineken Cup, while Munster's Simon Zebo will be marked out to succeed Howlett.
The likes of Richardt Strauss, Steven Sykes, Peter Borlase and Jared Payne could remain, however, as they are 'Special Projects' who will qualify for Ireland through residency after three years.
All future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland.
Ulster received some criticism for replacing injured New Zealander Payne with short-term signing Stefan Terblanche, a 36-year-old former Springbok. It happened despite the fact that Ulster have one of the most exciting academies in the country.
This type of short-term approach is detrimental to the development of young players who could take the opportunity left by Payne's injury to propel themselves into contention.
"We all know from our own rugby experience that injury is the biggest provider of opportunity for the next players," Wigglesworth said.
"We have to ensure that the opportunity is there. We want to, effectively, put a little bit more pressure on our own academy systems and our coaching and development systems to make sure that the younger Irish players, who have come through the academy, are getting the sort of game-time and experience at the higher level that they require and that we require them to have."
All future provincial non-Irish eligible player contracts will be position specific.
While it sounds straightforward, this change means a move away from the signing of versatile players who are brought in to provide cover across a number of positions.
In future, if Joe Schmidt wants to play Nacewa at full-back or out-half (he is registered as a winger) he will have to justify himself to the IRFU and prove that there is no credible Irish alternative.
"We're saying that, going forward, we need to be little more specific because we need to create the gaps, create the opportunities for the Irish-qualified players across the full 15 positions to gain the experience to allow them to front-up on European Cup and Pro12 games to put them in the frame for national selection," said Wigglesworth.
While positive, the changes will find resistance among the provinces when they face the reality of having to let a star name go or fielding an untested youngster in a huge game.
But ultimately, the more Irish players who are playing the game at the top level can only benefit the game and yesterday's blueprint appears to be a progressive step towards securing the long-term future of the professional game.
Non Irish-qualified players by position
1 Heinke van der Merwe (Leinster), Wian du Preez (Munster),
2 Richardt Strauss (Leinster)
3 Nathan White (Leinster), Peter Borlase, BJ Botha (Munster), John Afoa (Ulster)
4 Steven Sykes (Leinster)
5 Johann Muller (Ulster)
8 Pedrie Wannenburg (Ulster)
9 Ruan Pienaar (Ulster)
10 Mat Berquist (Leinster)
11 Doug Howlett (Munster), Simon Danielli (Ulster)
13 Lifemi Mafi (Munster),
14 Isa Nacewa (Leinster)
15 Jared Payne, Stefan Terblanche (Ulster).