Solid foundations or a house of cards?
THE debate is raging. Is the IRFU's new policy on player succession good or bad for Irish rugby?
Fittingly. given the time of year, there has been a pantomime 'Oh, no you didn't' element to it all, with the IRFU cast variously in the roles of villain and hero.
One aspect that has been missed in what has been portrayed as Armageddon between provinces and union is the governance issue . The provinces are the union and vice versa -- inter-dependant organs under the one familial umbrella. The union sustains the provinces, who feed the IRFU, not just in terms of players but also their representatives and committee members -- a complicated angle to an already complex relationship.
The success of the Heineken Cup has further queered the pitch. Where once the Five/Six Nations was the biggest show in town, many believe the glamour, tribal drama and entertainment value of Europe's premier club tournament has overtaken it.
That was the backdrop to last week's announcement outlining the four key principles to come in for 2013/14 -- one Non-Irish Eligible (NIE) player allowed across Ulster, Leinster and Munster in each position; all future NIE contracts to be position specific; no renewal or replacement of NIE contracts into the same position; all injury replacement contracts to be Ireland eligible.
Weighty changes by any standards, which have thrown up a clutch of talking points...
'IF IT AIN'T BROKE...'
Pro Provincial: The system as it stands has been working very well, the provinces have been bringing plenty of young players through, so why change it? The four Heineken Cups won since 2006 have generated interest, revenue and players for Ireland who won a Grand Slam in 2009 and achieved their most notable World Cup win in history against Australia a few months ago.
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Pro National: The counter-argument is that the system needs to be pressurised and that, while players have been coming through, it has not been happening fast enough and has not been position specific. The example is the presence of a clutch of overseas tight-heads, leaving Ireland short of depth in a key position. The thinking is that one NIE player in each position will force the development of Irish alternatives and that there will still be enough indigenous quality to win Heineken Cups and to benefit the national cause.
What we say: More Irish players in each position has to strengthen the national side and, given that the provinces will still have access to four NIEs plus one 'project' player, allied to the quality of Irish players, established and emerging, there is no reason why more Heineken Cups cannot be won. The other point worth noting is that Heineken Cups do not guarantee international progress -- as was proven at the World Cup in New Zealand when Wales (a country with no Heineken Cup titles) dismissed Ireland (five titles) in the quarter-finals. Maybe it 'ain't broke' for the provinces, but Ireland comes first.
THE 'NEED' FOR OVERSEAS EXPERIENCE
Pro Provincial: Ever since the overseas influx into Irish rugby took hold in the 1990s, a constant theme has been the experience they bring for younger Irish players to draw on to benefit their own careers down the line. In recent years, with the advent of the Player Management Programme restricting the use of frontline players, there has been a need for proven, rugged performers to step in when younger players may not be ready.
Pro National: Overseas players are still essential to plug the gaps and with four-plus-one, there's enough to go around. The argument is that this is not an attempt to depower the provinces -- the three teams should still have the benefits of marquee players like a Rocky Elsom or Doug Howlett -- but there will be more opportunities for talented Irish players to fill in around them.
What we say: Any player will tell you, for all the tips and video analysis and training exercises made available, the best way to learn is getting out on the pitch. The benefits of having an Elsom, Howlett or Ruan Pienaar, in terms of marketing and results, are plain to see but having journeymen holding back Irish youngsters hurts the national cause.
The three issues here are game-time, game-time and game-time -- and making sure enough Irish players have it.
THE RISK OF MERCENARIES
Pro Provincial: Players such as Isa Nacewa and Howlett, and the likes of Felipe Contepomi and Jim Williams before them, did not merely show up to collect a pay cheque -- they invested in the provinces they were playing for, settling into the squad and community and adding to the ethos. Knowing that there is no prospect of a contract extension would increase the chances of 'hit-and-run' southern hemisphere mercenaries, not motivated by the opportunity of a new life but by the best pay-out over a relatively short period of time.
Pro National: Rocky Elsom would be the obvious counter stance. The Australian flanker had a phenomenal impact at Leinster, an inspirational figure on their drive to the 2009 Heineken Cup who lifted standards around him -- and he was only there for a year. The new principles place an extra emphasis on research and getting value for money, quality over quantity.
What we say: It comes down to careful selection and the qualities of the individuals involved. The player who beds into a province tends to produce more and the knowledge that their stay is term-limited threatens the capacity to engage. Elsom was phenomenal and was not taking the place of an Irish frontliner at that time, but Leinster were not a one-man show and who is to say how much Sean O'Brien or Kevin McLaughlin would have benefited from more game-time that season?
Pro Provincial: There have been unsuccessful overseas signings (Clint Newland, Nick Williams, Grant Webb) and others that would appear to be unnecessary (Stefan Terblanche), but they were all approved before being allowed through to sign contracts with the provinces. Why punish provinces for mistakes that were sanctioned?
Pro National: Although there's an argument that there was an element of trusting the provincial decisions and approval was only given when it was felt that Irish players were not being held back, it is hard to dispute the provincial view on this one.
What we say: While there may have been a reluctance to turn down provincial requests, there were undoubtedly players approved who had no justifiable role in Irish rugby. Whatever about a need for props, approving journeymen flankers and No 8s (Ulster's Tamaiti Horua was another ) in a country awash with talented back-rows was plainly ridiculous.
Pro Provincial: There is a feeling the IRFU tried to slip in this upheaval under the radar, in the softest media week of the year and that there was not enough consultation with the provinces beforehand. There have also been accusations of an element of knee-jerk reaction to Ireland's World Cup exit at the quarter-final stage as well as to some recent overseas recruitment -- notably the (approved) signing of Terblanche.
Pro National: The IRFU stressed last week that this initiative has been on the table for 18 months and that the provinces were dealing with their respective Professional Games Board on the matter. Also, the facts are that the announcement came a few days after the vote on the matter was taken.
What we say: There is no question the timing of its release a few days before Christmas softened the impact, with no forthright response from the provinces until post-match press conferences on St Stephen's Day. However, another aspect to the timing is that contract season is upon us, and the fact this announcement will have a direct impact on future deals, strengthened the need to get it out there.
PICKING A WINNER
Pro Provincial: Only allowing one NIE player in each position will lead to faction fights over who gets who and bitter recrimination from those who miss out.
Pro National: The IRFU were steadfast when announcing the initiative, Irish rugby needs at least two quality players in each position and the principle comes above all else. They also accepted last week that tweaking may be necessary to plot the best way forward.
What we say: Tweaking looks inevitable, for this is the most unwieldy, impractical aspect to the whole exercise. As it stands, deciding who gets which overseas star paves the way for accusations of bias, prejudice and opens Pandora's Box with dynamite.
WILL IT WORK?
Pro Provincial: No, the provinces will be weakened in the Heineken Cup, the national side will suffer as a result and the house of cards will come tumbling down.
Pro National: Yes, there is enough quality between indigenous Irish and NIE players in the right positions to keep the provinces competitive and strengthen the Ireland team.
What we say: We shall see. There are undoubtedly flaws in this plan but no arguing with the underlying principle, the focus has to fall on Irish-qualified players and controlling overseas imports so they do not hinder the national cause. Not making a World Cup semi-final in seven tournaments (when every other major nation has) is unacceptable and takes priority over provincial prerogatives. This is the biggest change in Irish rugby since 1999 when the post-Lens fall-out instigated the drive to bring Irish players home on central contracts and, though there were teething problems, that didn't work out too badly.