Tony Ward: Three-year investments in project players is morally bankrupt venture
For the second year running CJ Stander looks set to be voted Irish Player of the Year. Whether it is IRUPA (players) or RWI (rugby writers) making that award, the adopted Munster man has been the epitome of consistency and our outstanding international player by a country mile. Conor Murray and Tadhg Furlong come closest, with Johnny Sexton also hitting top gear in his three games played.
Stander has been a revelation for Munster and for Ireland since his arrival on these shores. As an overseas investment, he is up there with the very best. Indeed, given his impact since coming into the national side post-England 2015, not too many would dispute the amiable South African as our best transfer business ever. Better than John Langford, Jim Williams, Rocky Elsom, Isa Nacewa, Ruan Pienaar and others of that ilk.
As of now he and Jared Payne are key pieces in the Irish jigsaw with both central to the Schmidt strategy going forward. They come from different parts of the southern hemisphere but let's just say neither grew up with a burning ambition to wear the emerald green of a tiny dot on the edge of another faraway continent.
But, according to World Rugby, and exercised to the letter by the IRFU, the New Zealander (Payne) and South African (Stander) are but two of the Project Players in Irish rugby. Let me hold my hands up here in saying I loathe that term and equally loathe the principle behind it. Richardt Strauss, Finlay Bealham, Rodney Ah You, Bundee Aki, Robbie Diack, Rhys Marshall and Tyler Bleyendaal are but some of the many overseas players proliferating provincial rugby. There is no problem with that whatsoever.
On the contrary, it is fantastic for the best emerging talent in the various provinces to be sharing that developing experience with players from differing rugby cultures and backgrounds.
The issue is with the three-year residency rule. The carrot now for attracting players who miss the boat in their native land (country of birth) is a three-year professional contract bringing with it that 'plastic Paddy' opportunity or its ticket-to-the-top equivalent. It is making a mockery of international rugby with players effectively picking and choosing the national emblem they wish to wear.
Since his appointment as World Rugby vice-chairman last May, former Argentine scrum-half Agustin Pichot has made no secret of his intention to have the three-year incubation period extended to five. It is a starting point but the broad principle still stinks. What pride would there be in an Irish team lifting the 2023 World Cup on home soil and full to the brim with Project Players? The IRFU are doing nothing wrong, they are operating by the law and other Unions likewise. Indeed, New Zealand, for all the home-grown talent have, plundered the south sea islands since the year dot.
It is nothing new but that doesn't make it right. Let's take Bundee Aki as an Irish case in point. He is already to Connacht what Stander, Nacewa and Pienaar are and have been to Munster, Leinster and Ulster respectively. Come the end of this season and were he to sign an extension with Connacht through the IRFU, then he will qualify for Ireland's next full international (as in every player being available) in November.
In fairness to the New Zealand native - a central playing figure alongside John Muldoon behind last year's memorable Pro12 win - he has inadvertently challenged the residency rule when, despite the likely benefit, saying: "It's wrong for me to say I'm Irish because I wasn't born here."
It is wrong and that is the fundamental principle at issue. Again answering with honesty when pressed as to which team 'he would like' (just take that in) to play international rugby with, he replied: "I actually do not know just yet." Can you believe this is where the qualification to wear a national emblem (for whatever country) is at now?
I was born of an Irish mother and an English father (with Russian heritage). Brought up in Ireland, my only sporting ambition, like every other Irish youngster of my generation, was to wear green in my chosen code. That I succeeded is irrelevant but what is hugely relevant is that assuming the brilliant Connacht centre signs an extended contract in the coming months, he, along with Munster out-half Bleyendaal among others, will qualify for Irish selection come the autumn.
The possible ramifications for a Garry Ringrose, or a Joey Carbery (100pc Irish-qualified despite dual nationality) are obvious and could be immediate. Again I repeat the IRFU are doing nothing wrong whatsoever as 'dem's de rules'. But if three-year residency (the standard duration of a professional contract anyway) is the best those in charge at World Rugby House can come up with then the global governing body, and by extension the game at international level, is morally bankrupt.
It is, of course, fantastic to see a CJ Stander or a Richardt Strauss join in the singing of our national anthem in our native tongue. I so wish we had a truly national anthem (another issue for another day) that the four proud provinces could sing together with Puma-, Welsh- or Gallic-like passion in the moments leading up to kick-off. As of now it is a distinct psychological disadvantage and let nobody but nobody argue otherwise. I feel so sorry for Ulster representatives having to behave like statues when the camera pans up and down the line.
I really thought the days of a Brian Smith, who not only played for Ireland having sounded out the other Home Nations first but also played for his country of birth Australia, were a dim and distant memory from the Plastic Paddy past. We used to joke about the Irish granny in football and all that Grannygate eventually entailed, but give us that before a three-year provincial contract with an Irish cap dangling at the end. I'm being somewhat flippant here as parental place of birth should be the extent of heritage but you get the point.
Please may we never again witness a Michael Bent-type figure, pictured upon arrival in this country for the first time with a hurley in hand. It wasn't his fault he was catapulted into the Ireland set-up through word of mouth, but even if it was Richie McCaw who had been parachuted in that day the joke was on each and every one of us.