Monday 18 December 2017

Losing our independence

The top nations have exploited residency rules but Ireland must not follow suit, says John O'Brien

THERE was a moment during Munster's rout of Australia at Thomond Park almost two weeks ago that offered pause for reflection.

As the Australians gradually wilted and ultimately cried 'No Mas', the performance of Munster new boy, Peter Borlase, came in for special attention from the RTE commentary team. As another scrum held firm we were invited to admire the New Zealand-born prop's talent and what it entailed for the future. In three years' time, we were reminded, Borlase could be eligible to play for Ireland. What a prospect to savour.

And yet a conflicting thought rushed to the surface. Through the decades we have grown so accustomed to the pattern of Munster making life hell for southern hemisphere players that the sight of them, not just being welcomed to the province, but moulded into potential Ireland internationals, feels strange and not altogether right. Even Irish football, with its dreadful history in this regard, never quite managed to twist the question of heritage to this extent.

Right now this doesn't seem such a pressing issue for Irish rugby. In the 32-man squad selected for last week's contest against New Zealand, only two, Tom Court and Brett Wilkinson, had come through the 36-month residency or grandparent rules. That beats most other top-tier rugby nations hands down. You could speculate, though, that in a few years an Irish front-row could feasibly read along the lines of Court, Richardt Strauss and Borlase. Where would we stand then?

The issue here isn't with Borlase or Munster. Borlase, like many southern hemisphere players with limited openings in their homeland, sees an opportunity to advance his career on the other side of the globe and signs up. And Munster is essentially a franchise in the business of competing with the best clubs in Europe on as equal a footing as it can manage, a challenge not altogether complementary with its duty in helping to develop the national side.

In total, the provinces are allowed six non-Irish qualified players. That there is hardly ever a time when each of the four doesn't have its full complement of NIQs tells its own story. If the quota allowed for 10, you can be certain they would fill that too. Because in truth the disdain the provinces share for the Union restrictions on foreign players is seldom more than thinly veiled.

Last year David Humphreys, Ulster operations director, bemoaned the fact that the restrictions on NIQs made it harder for Ulster because Irish players were generally reluctant to move north. "They rarely leave Munster or Leinster mainly because they get a massive tax-break whenever they retire," he explained. "As we struggle to attract players to move to Ulster, we rely very much on local players, on our academy players, and I believe that Ulster will be stronger when we are represented by those players."

Indeed Ulster believe so strongly in their young talent that they embarked on a sustained recruitment drive to bring a host of high-profile South African internationals to Ravenhill. And regardless of the success of the project, their capture alone offers a certain comfort. Suddenly Ulster, as Humphreys' words suggested, don't feel like second-class citizens compared to their southern counterparts anymore. Now they too can attract world-class talent.

It was possible too to glimpse the euphoria around Munster at the signing of Borlase and the second-coming of Wian du Preez. For the guts of a decade the feeling in the province was that they had shouldered the burden of feeding Ireland's prop line almost single-handedly while rival provinces fished in foreign seas. Now Marcus Horan and John Hayes were nearing the end and it was time for them to cast their net too. Let others carry that load for a change.

The thorny question is how well such thinking augurs for young, up-and-coming Irish talent. And it hardly helps when the IRFU devises a strategy whereby foreign players are introduced and ridiculously designated "special projects", a semantical bluff that doesn't hide the fact that it is merely a cynical exercise to placate the provinces, by enabling them to have another NIQ, and enhance the options for Ireland.

It isn't an accident that two of the special projects, Borlase and Strauss, operate in the front row where Ireland's needs look sharpest. Perhaps the IRFU imagines that the appearance of such quality players will encourage emerging Irish props and hookers to raise their games. Maybe the likes of Tony Buckley, Cian Healy and Dave Ryan have been told they aren't good enough for long enough, that the IRFU virtually confirming it won't make much difference.

On its own, of course, bringing in foreign players is no bad thing. It has been well documented how Munster's tough road to Cardiff in 2006 was blessed and augmented by the contributions of John Langford, Jim Williams, Shaun Payne and others. The manner in which they assimilated themselves into the Munster fold and, in several cases, established roots was, in itself, a wonderfully heart-warming story. Would it have been right if any of them had been capped, however? That is a massive leap to take.

The oft-quoted argument that a tide of good, committed foreign players helps lift all boats is relevant to Munster, but it doesn't work in a national context. There is, in fact, more likelihood that they hinder development by decreasing the pressure on clubs and provinces to deliver young talent and, instead, target the easy option each time. Humphreys also claimed last year that "our academy will ultimately determine how successful Ulster is in future", but how can we be sure of this?

Strauss could be a litmus test for the future. If the project reaches fulfilment, he will be 26 when he becomes eligible for Ireland, several good years ahead of him, and who then would bet against a heightened resolve to find others, of a younger vintage even, to follow in his footsteps? Or, as they do in New Zealand, encourage them over while they are still in their youth, maybe find a spot for them among the provincial academies.

Ultimately, the problem isn't the 36-month residency rule itself, but certain nations' eagerness to exploit it. Essentially the law was put in place to help weaker rugby nations, particularly those from the Pacific Islands prone to losing their best players to the suction machine that is the All Blacks, but it has been blackguarded by the major powers for whom it was never intended. And now, it seems, Ireland is desperate to get in on the act before it is too late.

The obvious defence that "everybody else is doing it so why shouldn't we" is weak and unsustainable. Australians can play for New Zealand and vice versa, New Zealanders and South Africans can field for England, the whole world can play for Italy, but that doesn't mean Ireland needs to blindly follow the shameful trend. Is there anything to be said for Irish rugby taking a moral stand and saying no to such blatantly crass opportunism? Is it hopelessly naive and old-fashioned to even suggest it?

You only have to look across the water to see the potential outcome of following such a path. When the Zimbabwean Graeme Hick first lined out for the England cricket team two decades ago, his inclusion caused a fuss in his adopted country. Now there is barely a stir when England start an Ashes Test with four South Africans in the first XI, nor is there likely to be when, as seems certain, they turn to an Irishman to get them out of trouble.

Their rugby team has gone the same way. If Lesley Vainikolo was restored and Riki Flutey recovered from injury, England would almost be in a position to pick a third of a team comprising New Zealanders. The shame of this is that, with numbers in excess of 600,000, England has more registered rugby players than any other country, five times as many, in fact, as New Zealand. But English rugby, like its cricket team, doesn't do shame anymore.

Last year Hendrie Fourie, a South African-born flanker, received his residency papers and was understandably thrilled. "South Africa didn't want me when I played there," he said, "so if England selected me I'd be honoured." Strauss said as much when he described his career in South Africa as coming to a "dead end." In nearly all cases the sentiment is the same. The modern rugby player chases money and opportunity.

Above all, Irish rugby needs to look closer to home to think about where it is headed. Bringing one or two "special project" players through might seem no big deal, but when Shay Brennan became the first footballer to play for Ireland under the 'granny rule' in the 1960s, nobody thought it would lead to a situation three decades later where teams were regularly fielded containing as few as three Irish-born players. A trickle became a flood.

The poverty of the Ireland football team is the starkest warning imaginable. When Ireland underage teams were performing heroically on the world stage in the late-1990s, FAI bosses spoke about devising technical plans, creating centres of excellence and facilities that would maximise the harvest they could reap from this boom. For all the talk, however, they did nothing. And they knew they could get away with it.

They could be lazy because there was a ready-made supply of players in England and beyond to feed the international machine. The pressing need for developmental structures could be fobbed off with glib, aspirational talk. The landscape now is depressing. The FAI is broke and releasing its technical director. There will be no centres of excellence. Second and third-generation Irishmen will be chased with renewed vigour. Recently, their absurdly-paid Italian manager mentioned the prospect of combing the United States for talented kids of Irish heritage.

Richardt Strauss and Peter Borlase are welcome additions to Irish rugby and no one will begrudge them successful, lucrative careers with Leinster and Munster respectively. But Ireland? It is hard to escape the feeling that something precious will be lost the day that happens.

Sunday Independent

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