Sunday 16 June 2019

Brendan Fanning: Not all rules are made to be broken

It may be frustrating for the provinces, but the IRFU's policy is in the national interest

Ulster's Ruan Pienaar. Photo: Sportsfile
Ulster's Ruan Pienaar. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

When Australia beat New Zealand in Sydney just over a year ago, there was a palpable sigh of relief around the rest of the rugby world. It was only the second time the All Blacks had been beaten since December 2012, and the first time the Wallabies had got a win in that fixture in 11 matches. The Tasman Sea must seem like the width of a ditch when your nearest neighbour is inflicting that frequency of pain on you. With the World Cup around the corner, all bar the Kiwis considered it good for business.

It was a pulsating game, where from the off, the home team had about them a point-blank refusal to be beaten. The statistical trail of destruction was one motivator. Another, and more powerful, was the fact that it was the first Test match since the Australian Rugby Union had decided to open the door to players who had packed up and gone to Europe.

Making that call had been controversial and momentous. Overnight they shifted position from shunning those who had abandoned Super Rugby for Europe to one where players who had clocked up 60 Tests and given seven years' service to the green and gold could fly the coop - and then fly back again to play Test rugby.

It was an about-turn on the point that losing top-quality players to overseas would inevitably weaken the value of Super Rugby. And there were a fair few jaws hitting the floor when the announcement was made, one that facilitated the return of Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell for that win over the ABs, with Quade Cooper to follow.

The renowned diplomat who succeeded in effecting this change was none other than Michael Boutros Boutros Cheika. When he succeeded Ewen McKenzie as Australia coach he wasn't long about making a list of the pros and cons of the job. And top of the latter was the Wild Geese. We don't know who came up with the 60 Tests/seven years' service compromise, but it was an example of how the tide of circumstance can wash away a clear line in the sand.

Ulster would love something similar to happen in this country, albeit in a slightly different area: the IRFU policy on non-Ireland qualified players in the provincial squads.

Their public statement last week on the scheduled end-of-season departure of Ruan Pienaar was by far the loudest yelp from any of the provinces to the union closing the lid on their fingers.

You don't have to be from that part of the island to appreciate the wrench that will be Pienaar's departure. Perhaps the first criterion you look for in separating world-class players from the rest is the appearance of having extra time on the ball. In that department the South African looks like he's on the way down to the shops of a Sunday morning for a coffee and the papers.

Equally you shouldn't need to be from outside that corner of the country to appreciate that there is a bigger picture. And that seven seasons in situ is a good stretch, especially when the IRFU's original plan for this area was that there should be no contract renewals for any non-Ireland eligible (NIE) player.

When it was introduced under the cover of darkness, provided by Christmas party time in December 2011, it looked and read like a regulation:

For the 2013/14 season and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad.

Subsequently, on the realisation that rules set in stone lead to dilemmas of how to keep rules unbroken, the union started referring to their ethnic cleansing model more as a guideline. And so we got Irish solutions to Irish problems.

Ulster did well enough from the interpretation. Ruan Pienaar may be the jewel in their crown currently but Johann Muller was the king of the Voortrekkers. A big man, an enforcer and a spiritual leader, Muller arrived in Ulster in 2010, but long before his contract was up at the end of the 2012/13 season they had negotiated with the IRFU to keep him for another 12 months.

How? Because big Johann was a great bloke to have about the place with the young fellas, none of whom seemingly were being blocked from the light by his towering presence. The only other NIE second row on the island was Leinster's Quinn Roux, signed by Joe Schmidt with a view to project status, so Ulster got to keep their king.

They also succeeded in 2012 in hanging on to Pienaar for an extra two seasons, having recruited him in 2010; then in 2014 they got the green light for another three seasons, up until next summer. If a further extension always seemed unlikely then the arrival in Leinster this summer of Kiwi scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park cooked their goose. Leinster had been jumping up and down for a while about the impending departure of both Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss, so the swings and roundabouts were in their favour. Vaarwel Ruan.

Traumatised by the prospect of losing him, Ulster presented their case last week as one of a missionary being wrenched from his loving flock by an evil despot. The best line is from one of our northern colleagues: ". . . he is being forced to leave a city he adores." Diddums, you reckon he'll have time to pack?

Public relations has never been the IRFU's thing, but even they couldn't lose the battle on this front. Ulster have got sterling service from Pienaar, but that particular bed has been blocked long enough. And in a country as small as ours, freeing up space for home-grown talent is a top priority.

Compared to our neighbours, the IRFU are all over the issue of non-qualified players like a rash. And given that they are, unlike England and Wales, the exclusive Boss Hogg in their own jurisdiction, they can afford to be.

England, for example, literally pay for the privilege of their clubs providing game-time for those qualified to wear the Red Rose. If Premiership clubs want to dip their snouts in the multi-million pound trough filled up by Twickenham, then 15 of any match day squad need to be England qualified (EQPs). According to a Premiership spokesman last week, circa 190 EQPs feature across the 12 clubs every weekend.

In Wales, the WRU's role in funding their regions is comparatively far less than the IRFU's with our provinces, so their scope for control is limited. Even so, coincidentally the WRU's new director of rugby, Geraint John, had a meeting with all the stakeholders last week where he was banging the drum about sharing everything across the board in the national interest.

He can't, however, impose on the regions anything more restrictive than the current limit of six non-eligible Wales players per match-day squad. Currently there is deep unease over there about the dearth of eligible centres and tighthead props - or rather, their access past non-qualified players to the national team.

As for the Scots, whose two pro teams can't buy a box of paper clips without approval from Murrayfield, there are no restrictions whatsoever. Thus Alan Solomons was on hands-free when he arrived in Edinburgh in summer 2013. There were two South Africans on site already. He added another four, plus an English player whom he had coached in South Africa. And then bought in a handful of Aussies, Kiwis and Argies. No Scots need apply?

Ireland's set-up demands a maximum of five NIEs - one of whom is a project player who can qualify through the fairly lax World Rugby criterion of three years' residency - in the entire squad. We have seen that there is a touch of the Ballinasloe Horse Fair about it. And while that maddens the provincial coaches when they can't get a thoroughbred from overseas into the parade ring, that's the way it is.

Maybe it's the Irish gene running through the rump of Australia that led them to change direction on an issue they had previously considered non-negotiable. You'd imagine that the likes of Marty Moore in Wasps and Ian Madigan in Bordeaux are hoping it catches on over here. As for Ulster, get out the bunting lads and prepare for the long farewell to Ruan Pienaar.

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