Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Project Ireland

In his latest piece for HarpinOnRugby Kevin O'Brien looks at the current state of our project player programme...

It’s that time of year again. The Six Nations is nearly upon us with the various countries starting to name their squads. In the last week, both Italy & France have named their panels, with the rest of the countries to show their hand this coming week. The French squad looks the strongest for some time. My first reaction was ‘feck, the French match is going to be one hell of a tough game against them.’ But then I looked through the squad again and the one thing that stands out is the amount of, to use an Irish term, project players that were named in their squad. By my reckoning there are 5 including Spedding & Kockott. Players now qualified under the 3 years residency qualification rule. Now this is not a new phenomenon but it is becoming more and more of a feature of the international game.

I’ll put my cards on the table by saying it’s probably not something I agree with. It should not be that simple to “qualify” to play international rugby for a country. At a minimum there should be a blood connection i.e. a parent or grandparent perhaps. But the three year residency rule is the current criteria and many countries not just the French are taking advantage of this system. 

Here in Ireland we have the Project Player system whereby we seek to attract foreign players to play for our provinces for three years after which time they qualify to play for the national team. This set up has been written about and discussed many times before. Does it slow down the development of indigenous players? Are we importing below standard players who weren’t good enough to play for their own countries? Would our limited resources be better spent bringing in a marquee player who can really add to our provinces like we have done in the past with Pienaar, Muller, Howlett and eh Cullen & Botha? For every success like Richardt Strauss there is a Peter Borlaise or Stephen Sykes. But I guess the national team is the priority for the IRFU and as a result it seems we are only going to see more project players.

Now having said I don’t really agree with this system, but seeing as we have embraced it, well the IRFU have embraced it, I find myself getting caught up in it. Once we bring a player in to a province I badly want them to succeed. It goes against what I think is the right thing to do i.e. develop our own players, but I simply can’t help myself. When CJ Stander wasn’t getting picked at Munster I had this irrational fear that we would lose him and he would go back to South Africa and become a world beater. This guy was and is a hell of a player. He will only enhance our squad and create more depth. It was the same with Quinn Roux who is only really showing true form in recent months. He had just signed a new loan deal to stay with Connacht until the end of the season, but what after that? I’m sure there are many in South Africa & Western Province who would gladly have him back. However, I wanted someone from the IRFU, Leinster or Connacht to tell me he would be staying on after this season and thus qualify to play for Ireland. (Thankfully this happened) Even when he was struggling I was really rooting for him to come good. It seemed he was doomed to follow the same path as his compatriot Stephen Sykes. That thought really upset me. 

Jake Heenan of Connacht, whom we have sadly seen too little of due to injury, is another. He’s here now for three years with a view to qualifying for Ireland, but in some of his newspaper interviews he comes across as non committal and adds that he also qualifies for England. In my head I’m going ‘NO, NO, NO’. You're one of ours now and that’s the way it has to stay. Simple as!!! You see I get caught in this whole process. I get caught up in the player’s stories. I get caught up in the player’s potential. The potential of what they will bring to the provinces and Ireland. I badly want them to be huge successes. I follow their progress avidly and even find myself getting annoyed when the provinces don’t pick them. I know, how foolish of me.

Yet my head tells me that this whole process is very wrong. I go back to my reaction to the French squad and I’m thinking no way it’s just not right that they now have so many non French players on the squad. Something needs to be done!!! This can’t be allowed. It’s just not cricket I say. 

But then the conflict.... I want our project players to stay, qualify for Ireland and be world beaters. Help make us world beaters. It’s a real conundrum. 

Let’s take this step further. Given the number of project players currently at Irish provinces in a couple of years it will be possible for us to field an entire team with subs in an international test match made up of naturalised players. It’s a highly unlikely scenario but in theory it could be done. Imagine the scene in a packed Lansdowne Road. The band is belting out Amhrán na Bhfiann and the camera is panning down the line of the Irish team which is as follows:

15 Jared Payne (NZ - project)
14 Dannie Poolman (SA - project)
13 Bundi Aki  (NZ - project)
12 Miah Nikora (NZ - project)
11 Gerard Van Der Heever (SA - project)
10 Tyler Bleyendaal (NZ - project)
9 Isaac Boss (NZ - grandparent)

1 Michael Bent (NZ - grandparent)
2 Richardt Strauss (SA - project)
3 Nathan White (NZ - project)
4 Quinn Roux (SA - project)
5 Dan Tuohy (ENG - project?)
6 CJ Stander (SA - project)
7 Jake Heenan (NZ - project)
8 Robbie Diack (SA - project)

Subs - Ah You, Herbst, Herring, McCarthy 

At least we know Richart Strauss would be belting out the anthem!!! Now how would we feel looking at such a line up? I admit I would find it very difficult indeed. 

It might be a bit disingenuous including Boss, Tuohy & McCarthy who have been committed to Irish rugby over a prolonged period. And of course Bent & Boss have Irish grandparents. But the point is that we could actually field such a team in years to come made up entirely of project and naturalised players. From a playing point of view it’s probably not a bad line up at all. Though we might need a new project player in the scrum half position perhaps!!! But on a moral level is it right? Should home-grown Irish guys nurtured in our schools and clubs lose out to these project players? I wouldn’t be at all comfortable were we ever to field such a team but at the same time once these guys get here I find myself wanting them to be successful with Ireland.

For me most of these players who come to Ireland seem genuine in their ambition to play for our country. Most talk passionately about the prospect. They have invested in their provinces and in Ireland in the hope that international recognition would come their way. In most cases I believe this desire to be genuine. There has of course been some brought over who didn’t cut it like Sykes, Newland & Borlase. There may be one or two who are happy to roll the dice, take a nice pay cheque in Ireland and see what comes their way. But in most cases I firmly believe that the majority of project players make a life changing decision coming to Ireland. They seem to buy into the ethos of their provinces & eventually the Irish team. Make no doubt about it Jared Payne

Strauss, Diack, & Stander et al are quality players and will enhance any team they play with. But the question remains is it right that they simply have to stay here for 3 years to play for Ireland regardless of their passion for the cause?

My head says absolutely not. It should not be so easy regardless of how good the player is. However my heart...

Kevin O’Brien (@marywards) : Rugby mad Leinster man exiled in Connaught. Father of 3 with wife who hates sport but tolerates rugby.


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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019