The talk of the Autumn Nations Cup has been the five players in Ireland’s starting 15 who qualified due to residency rules, seeing Eddie Jones brand Andy Farrell’s experimental team as the “United Nations” in the pre-match press conference.
Regardless of Jones’ playful nudge, every national rugby union team has benefited from the three-year eligibility rule to the point it has become a Shakespearean tragedy and comedy rolled into one.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup included 134 foreign-born players, a rule that is exploited by adults who are on the fringes of the national set up in their home nation.
Ireland have forthrightly employed the regulations of naturalisation to their advantage, with South African-born backrower CJ Stander and New Zealand-born centre Bundee Aki becoming adored assets to the IRFU.
The most recent inclusion to the mix was Leinster’s James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park and Quinn Roux, who all qualified through residency. It was only a matter of patience for these quality players to qualify, with similar actions occurring when Munster’s Jean Klynn won his first Irish cap against Italy in 2019, only one day after his qualification.
In terms of the IRFU, the contracts drawn up have allowed players such as Stander and Aki to integrate handsomely into their communities and contribute to the provincial setup.
The disadvantages lie in minimal prioritisation of native players who would compete for these positions. The IRFU would argue that every player on the team is eligible to play but in hindsight, winning with purely homegrown talent would make it that bit sweeter.
The IRFU’s pool of players has come in leaps and bounds from its humble and raw beginnings as an amateur game to producing top-level professional athletes. Is there a need for such tomfoolery with a proven player development program?
The sinister aspect to ‘project players’ in rugby unions outside Ireland, notably in lower-tier French sides, is the financial manipulation of Pacific Island players, seeing World Rugby increase the minimum residency period to five years.
Tiptoeing around the topic of homegrown talent there is a conspicuous attitude within the IRFU which minimises the playing and athletic potential of some of our young players.
With several contracts due to end this year, the IRFU is in a tricky financial position and will have to hold negotiations with Sexton, Stander and Henderson next year. In addition to the financial woes, David Nucifora recently reiterated that no changes would be made considering Ireland’s policy on picking players based abroad, despite the likely pay cuts in store for players.
Players such as Racing 92’s Simon Zebo and London Irish prop Sean O’Brien lost their place on the Irish squad, while Johnny Sexton was the only player to maintain his position when he left Leinster for Racing 92 in 2013.
A stain of hypocrisy shadowed the IRFU that allowed Sexton to compete with Ireland while other talented players have to give up their international career to play abroad.
Australia applied the same policy in choosing the national team through Super Rugby, until Rugby Australia reconditioned the rule to allow overseas-based players with 60-plus caps. Known as ‘Giteau’s law’, it was enacted to allow Toulon centre Matt Giteau to play for the Wallabies in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
In 2020, the rule eased again to allow two overseas players that don’t qualify through Giteau’s law to be selected via consultation from the Rugby Australia board.
Ireland’s provincial teams have produced accomplished and skilled players who have won the Six Nations on three occasions and ranked No.1 in the world. However, for the precedence in which we judge Ireland, why have our achievements on the world stage been incredibly disparate.
Look at the reigning world champions. A stark contrast between Ireland and South Africa may be stature and size but many Springboks play for the most competitive clubs and leagues in Europe. Faf de Klerk, Jean-Luc and Daniel du Preez play their rugby with Sale Sharks, Jacques Vermeulen is at Exeter Chiefs, while Cheslin Kolbe is with Toulouse.
South Africa’s talent compete against the best teams in the northern hemisphere, then transgress into the international setup.
Irish provincial teams don’t have this luxury. How many trashings of Zebre or Benetton does Leinster have to inflict to prove the sub-par position of the Pro League, then gingerly wait for the Champions Cup to come along to be tested?
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Competitiveness and consistency are gospel for players and teams to succeed.
The pro rugby competition is set to expand as SA Rugby voted to allow the Sharks, Bulls, Lions and Stormers to transition over to the fractured European competition. This may be the perfect resolution to the lack of bite seen in the league and give proper competitiveness to Irish rugby.
Nonetheless, the game against Georgia last week exposed major cracks in the structure of the Irish setup, and even if Simon Zebo waltzed into the fullback position off the back of playing in France, one man can’t mask the glare of disjointed belief.