IRFU closes shop on international players

Shock. Anger. Disbelief. Feeling betrayed by the shortsighted blazers whose narrow-minded idea of national rugby success was defined only by the international side, as the IRFU cast aside the contributions of international players to the provincial sides with the introduction of their new NIE player policy. So, it’s been nice knowing you Nacewa. Hasta manana Howlett. Time to part ways, Pienaar. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Or so I felt initially. ‘Upon mature reflection’ I realised that there may have been a little more depth to this policy than I’d originally thought. Let’s take it one ‘principal’ at a time.

Leinster celebrate another win

Leinster Rugby

“One NIE player only in each of the 15 positions across Leinster, Munster and Ulster”. This is the big ‘un. This means that whilst there is a NIE player registered for any individualposition in any of the provinces (other than Connacht, but more on this later), all other players registered for that position must be Irish Eligible. The obvious implications of this are that, as opposed to the current rules, they are reduced to 5 foreign players each, with a greater spread between positions, and one of them must be a Special Project player who can become Irish eligible after ‘naturalising’. The benefit to be reaped by Irish rugby here is that there should be two to three first XV provincial players for each position, at a bare minimum, and most likely some promising youngsters coming up behind them too. So far, so laudable.

However, is it not possible that this will bate the provinces into trying to ensure that all four foreign signings are marquee names locked-in to the starting XV in order to make best use of the available resources? What’s the point of having middling South Africans, New Zealanders et al to facilitate squad rotation during times where the Irish squad players are unavailable when you could try and get great ones that’ll start near every match and possibly boost ticket sales? This scenario would lead to less front line rugby for those that this scheme is aimed at.

“For the season 2013/14 and onwards… a province will not be permitted to renew … that NIE contract or bring a new player into the same position”. This to me basically reads as “You can buy someone in for a single contract, but if you don’t have a decent Irish player for that position by the time it’s up you’re shit out of luck.” With the options thereafter being a short contract for short term cover, and then they’re off, or a long term contract, with the significant associated costs and inherent risks of a duff player being an albatross around the neck for years to come, you can only see the short term contracts being used in most cases. It’s hard to say how this will effect the attractiveness of the provinces to decent foreign players, but I would wager that the prospect of uprooting and resettling yourself and/or your family for a 2 year contract is a tough sell. Let alone the weather..

“All future injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland.” This was the one that had me reeling in my seat. The days of medical jokers (no Patch Adams jokes, please) are done and dusted here, with the possibility of any short term foreign player loans to cover positions in emergency situations being succinctly nixed. Given the benefits both Stringer and Sarries already seem to be gaining from his short term move there, it’s hard to see this move as anything other that the closing of a potential loophole to bring foreign players in the backdoor.

“All future provincial non Irish eligible player contracts will be position specific.” Again, this is loophole closing. So no signing Dan Carter as a tight-head prop and playing him ‘out of position’. It also closes the door on utility players however, as the IRFU are going to be stringent on the application of starting positions by all accounts. Given the interchangeable nature of many positions in modern rugby, this seems to me to be the worst thought out concept of the revised regulations. Nacewa is registered as a wing, for example. What rugby would we have missed in the last year had he been restricted from playing at 15.

Irish rugby players after another defeat

Will Irish rugby benefit?

Not a glowing review of the regulations up to this point, but taking an overview you can see what the IRFU are trying to address. To be plain, the Irish rugby team have been suffering selection difficulties and lack of squad depth in several positions, most notably in the props, locks, at 7, the centres and 15. This is obvious for all and sundry to see, and needs to be tackled now and not when the last of the ‘golden generation’ hang up the studs and pick up the coach’s whistle or radio-mike.

The approach they are taking is to share the responsibility for ensuring Irish qualified depth for all positions between 3 successful provinces with strong fan bases and proven development lines, which have been helped along in no small part by the IRFU’s contribution of €2.5million per annum to the player development scheme. In itself, this seems reasonable, logical and equitable. There will be a period of adjustment, but we have the facilities, the infrastructure and the quality of players coming through to ensure that current provincial success can be transferred to the national team. The reality is a little less clear-cut.

The difficulties of a closed shop start springing to mind. The internal transfer system of young Irish players between provinces in order to make space for marquee foreign signings or to facilitate injury cover could cause a “transfer culture” to take root, where it may not matter to the player which club they represent, as long as they’re getting game time, which cheapens rugby in this country on the whole.

Very few young players give their best within the first year at a new club, as it takes time to ‘gel’, and pride in the jersey has been at the heart of provincial performances since time immemorial.

Rocky Elsom winning the Heineken Cup with Leinster

Rocky Elsom winning the Heineken Cup with Leinster

There is also an under-estimation of the impact that high-class foreign players can have on those around them, either by mentoring (see the Nathan Hines-esque dummy and behind the back offload recently by Toner?), by ensuring that there is real competition for places rather than a staid junior and senior player tier system (would Rob Kearney be playing as well at 15 as he is now if Isa wasn’t breathing down the back of his jersey?), or simply by dint of giving an example of what’s possible with a different mindset (would SOB be SOB if there had not first been Rocky to show the way?)

The IRFU have also argued that since the majority of their net income comes from the national side, rather than the provincials, that this is where they need to focus on ensuring quality performances and winning the silverware. This seems to be overlooking the fact that provincial popularity is driving rugby’s popularity in this country, which in turn in swelling the IRFU’s coffers in the increased interest in the national team. There are more rugby clubs starting up, and more people playing than ever before in this country, and to assume that the success and the rivalry of the provinces is the smaller part of this equation is an exercise in blind ignorance.

One could argue that a more tempered approach would be to continue to build support and the player base from the grass-roots, ensure there’s quality competition for team places on a provincial level, work with the provincial management to identify problem positions and tackle them in tandem, and, since the IRFU already have veto on any individual foreign signings, ensure that there isn’t a glut of NIEs in an individual position. Or just use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. You can tell the supporters what’s good for them, but don’t be surprised if they don’t all thank you at once.

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