Saturday, November 10, 2012

Residency–the game of beggars & choosers

Recently we published an excellent article by Kate McEvoy on rugby & nationalism.  I don’t want to tread on her toes, but I also would like to give my take on it as I’m in a ranty mood this morning.

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I went to a big rugby school but unless it was actual organized training for a cup team, when it came to break time activities, we were more likely to play soccer.

And so there would be a game in the schoolyard every day.  Only thing we needed to do first was pick teams.  How we did that would come down to two choices…

(1) A draft. Two “captains” were nominated, who would then take turns choosing players.  If you’re one of those who value kids’ self-esteem, this probably wasn’t the best way of doing things, as invariably the same boys would always be chosen last.  But I’m not sure if anyone is going to try to enforce a law banning kids from taking turns picking teams for lunch-break football.

(2) Class v Class. Trash-talking between classes is inevitable, and what better way to settle bragging rights than in the sporting arena.  It also makes picking the teams much easier, as everyone knows which class they are in.  Only problem here at lunchtime is if your school year has more than two classes and only one pitch.

In top-level sport, the above two methods of choosing teams, tried and tested as they were on the schoolyard, are re-created, particularly in what you could call “European” sports like soccer, rugby (I know they’re better in the southern hemisphere I’m talking about the game’s origins people!) and cricket.

First, we have club level. The week-in, week-out, bread and butter.  In the most part, this is like the “draft” system in that where possible the players are distributed around the clubs; maybe not by an actual draft like the Americans do, but in a sort of “free-market economics” kind of way. 

The top clubs will choose players from their locality if and when they can, but with a decent amount of revenue they can invest in the best players from around the world, affording as they can to not only pay them but also offer them a decent set-up near the stadium and training facilities.  These choices of top players are generally based on needs in a certain position…for example, Leinster rugby would hardly splash out on a player like Dan Carter when they already have Jonathan Sexton.

Then, of course, we also have international level, where in an ideal scenario, selection is a lot more straightforward.  In what country were you born?  Right – that’s who you play for.  A bit like the class v class example above, the decision of who you play for has already been made by a higher power (only this time MUCH higher!).

But then we must factor in the complications that the wonderful sport of rugby union throws into the mix, two in particular.

First, although it is  growing in popularity worldwide every year (over 50k at a match in Madagascar?) it is really only considered “seriously” by ten so-called “top-tier” nations.  The rights and wrongs of that are a debate for another day, and I have written about them before…for this article we can just see it as a fact.

And second, we have the extreme specialist nature of pretty much every position on a rugby field.  Once a player signs a professional contract as a prop for example, there is very little chance he is going to get work at any club in a different position, John Smit being a glaring exception that proves the rule.  The strength and conditioning regime of a prop virtually guarantees he must always be one.

Now it is true, there is some scope for flexibility in other positions…second rows can be flankers, wingers can be full-backs, out-halves can be inside centres.  But generally when a player makes it to the top he is best known for wearing one jersey number in particular.

As I said earlier, rugby clubs at the highest level can be selective on the players they bring in based on the positions they already have covered.  However, the higher power that determines birthplace doesn’t seem to be too concerned with an even spread of rugby union positions around the top tier nations!

So it kind of goes without saying that there will be some countries where there are an abundance of players gifted at a particular position, and there will be others where there is a scarcity.

For examples, we have New Zealand, who won the World Cup last year with four different out-halves, and at the other end of the scale we have Italy, who can’t put out a number ten whose name ends in “i” no matter how hard they try.

And so this dilemma leads to the oft-debated residency rules.  Well, here’s my take on it.

The only way to take all arguments out of the equation is with zero tolerance.  Where you were born is where you must play.  Leave it up to the Gods. 

Of course, we know this cannot work.  I’m pretty sure Jamie Heaslip, ready to proudly lead Ireland out for the first time later today, wouldn’t be too happy with such a system, because under it his next international appearance would be for Israel against Latvia next April.  Jamie may have been born in Tiberias, but he went to Newbridge College and togged out for Naas RFC & Trinity before joining Leinster.  Besides, his family is Irish.  So he is.

All this means a line has to be drawn somewhere.  Exceptions have to be made.  What has to be up for debate is what priorities we use when coming up with those rules.

For me, the rules have to benefit the player.  Every schoolkid playing at lunchtime dreams of one day playing for their country.  But as they get older and choose a career, they surely also have dreams of taking their career as far as they possibly can.  Why should this be any different for professional sports?

I wish Richardt Strauss all the best today for Ireland.  It couldn’t have been an easy decision for him to move to Ireland and abandon all hope of donning the Bok green.  Who’s to say South Africa wouldn’t ever suffer an injury crisis at his position similar to the All-Blacks did at 10 last year?  But emigrate he did, as many people do for the sake of their careers.  Here in Ireland, we should know about that more than most.

You could argue that Sean Cronin also dreamed of playing for his country.  There is no doubt that the residency rule has hurt him.  But as I said earlier, a line must be drawn, and drawing that line will always produce consequences.  Besides, when Strauss was making his decision to come to Ireland, it was far from sure that Cronin would make the grade. 

As for Michael Bent, well, perhaps we’re stretching the rules a bit.  OK, a lot.   But we’re certainly not breaking them.  The Irish coaching staff is under heaps of pressure this November for results, and tight-head prop is certainly not a position you can afford to take any chances on.  They had to make a call…and with Declan Fitzpatrick seemingly not ready to return to the test arena it came down to Bent v Loughney and the Kiwi-born prop got the nod. 

I actually think the coaching brains trust have shown themselves to be taking decisive action on a definite problem here.  Something had to be done about the Twickenham disaster, and this is what they have chosen to do.  How it pans out remains to be seen.

One thing I will say…the grandparent rule doesn’t sit well with me.  Parents, fine, but the way we have it is one generation too many.  Were it down to me, Bent would have to follow Strauss’ path to wear an Irish jersey.

But the rules are there, and Ireland have used them.  Plus, compared to other countries above us in the rankings, we haved use them relatively sparingly.  So what say we get behind them.

Notice how I’ve given all these points without so much as mentioning that, although I was born in California and still have the accent, I consider myself Irish having lived here for 35 years and seen all my children born here?  Funny that. JLP

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