Monday 19 February 2018

Neil Francis: Wearing jersey of another country diminishes the game

It seems pre-ordained that Bundee Aki (right) will join his current Connacht team-mate Robbie Henshaw in the Ireland international set-up. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
It seems pre-ordained that Bundee Aki (right) will join his current Connacht team-mate Robbie Henshaw in the Ireland international set-up. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Leinster's Ben Te'o. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On June 11, with a little bit of luck, Ben Te'o may swap his blue jersey with a harp on it for a white one with a rose on it to play against a side in tangerine with a Wallaby on it.

What is a jersey anyway? Something that you put on so that your team-mates know you are one of them.

Te'o was born in Auckland, moved to Australia when he was 17, played rugby league for Samoa - his country of birth right - moved to Ireland two years ago and will in all probability play for England in a month's time.

The move to the Worcester Warriors - let me pick a cliché here out of my big bag of clichés - "is an exciting opportunity for me". The word 'opportunity' is pronounced oppah-tuewn-natteee.

Te'o played a different form of rugby for a completely different country a while back - that doesn't preclude him from playing for England.

Te'o has one, possibly two, games left for Leinster and off he goes. He will have fond memories of Leinster. They rehabilitated him and they showed him how to play Rugby Union. They paid him a lot of money and now Leinster can thank him for using the excuse of losing him to go and get Robbie Henshaw.

Noel Reid? Well, he might as well go to Worcester Warriors, too.

Te'o is undoubtedly a really fine rugby player. We know this because he is the only player in Leinster who is allowed offload the ball on a regular basis. Everyone else in Leinster can offload but you have to be an antipodean import to be given permission to do it.

Anyway, he will be gone soon. Pity somebody didn't discover he had some Irish heritage - he could play in the centre with Bundee Aki the season after next.

Jared Payne gets the ball away. Photo: Sportsfile

Where would we play Robbie Henshaw then? I suppose we could play him in his national position of full-back. Sorry, Jared Payne (above) will be playing there.

It seems pre-ordained that Bundee Aki will play for Ireland. He, too, like Te'o, is a fine player but as we get carried away with the runaway train that is Connacht, should we not consider the consequences of picking him and the cause-and-effect ripple this has?

Cast your mind back to Lifeimi Mafi, who arrived on these shores back in 2006. He took his time coming to prominence - but when he did he caused a stir. He had electric pace and he was a great stepper.

He was also a great stepper out of the line in defensive situations and he generally gave away as many tries as he scored.

Leinster's Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll used to have a field day every time they played against him. He was a useful player but incapable of adapting to team structures.

How we all lamented the fact that he was precluded from playing or declaring for Ireland after playing for New Zealand at Sevens. Was there a loophole? How could we get him into the squad? This was a human tragedy.

The season before Mafi left, he couldn't even get into the Munster side with Johne Murphy and Sam Tuitupou keeping him out of the team.

Mafi headed off to Perpignan where he is still ploughing away in the French Pro division 2. The greatest centre never to play for Ireland.

It is always an absorbing exercise to compare and contrast the fortunes of the players who arrive at the same time in the same position but with different teams.

Munster's Simon Zebo and Francis Saili have both gone under the knife

Francis Saili (pictured above with Simon Zebo) plies his trade for Munster at centre. Hard to shine when you are with a team that looks like it is playing with the handbrake on. Saili has a year left on his contract and you never know - he might be off to the Worcester Warriors too at the end of next season.

Munster's ineptitude this season has not helped him and you could point to the fact that the way they have played this season might have suppressed any zip or imagination he has.

At the end of Connacht's destruction of Munster at the Sportsground, Saili and Aki knelt down in prayer together after the final whistle.

"Our father who art in ….."


"Give us this day your coaches' number."

"087 ….."

What sort of a player would Saili be if he caught the Connacht Wave on his surfboard? How good would Aki look if he was playing for Munster this season?

How is it that Connacht have got their buy-in so right and Munster, well Saili is not the player Munster hoped he would be.

You could point to the fact that there isn't a dominant or controlling player at 10 but you would be missing the point.

Muliaina has already announced that he will leave Connacht this summer and join Saturday’s opponents Zebre

Pat Lam doesn't get them right all the time and the Mils Muliaina (above) purchase was a disaster. You can cloak it in tinsel but he played only a handful of games and did not impress in any of them.

Paying out a monster salary and getting that sort of return is bad business. What sort of influence he had on younger players and his patriarchal effect on those around him is a moot point. He was paid to play and he failed to produce.

Lam gets a good one this time. How is it that Munster get another 'marquee' player wrong again.

Aki picks up a couple of gongs during the week and we wait for another pathfinder performance from him in 10 days' time.

The force is with Connacht at the moment. Next year could be different. Even though they haven't played a huge amount of rugby together this season, Henshaw and Aki are a formidable centre pairing and inside them AJ MacGinty is an understated and quietly intelligent player who holds the line well and gets the best of his three-quarters.

Both of these players won't be around next year and will be hard to replace.

The move east for Henshaw is probably just about worth the risk for the dough he is getting, but he could lose his way if Leinster do not improve dramatically.

Henshaw's skill-set are international class at the moment. I will be intrigued to see what they are like three years from now. Do Leinster have skills coaches as good as Dave Ellis and Andre Bell?

As for Aki, his performance will have a bearing on where the Pro12 title goes. What happens after that is in the lap of the gods.

Before he left New Zealand, he said: "If I play three years over there (Ireland) and it doesn't go well, I can always go back to Samoa (and play)."

Wearing a Test jersey for another country is a handy convenience these days. In terms of earning it, being good enough is only one element.

By the way we haven't mentioned Garry Ringrose's name in this piece until now…

Irish Independent

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