Thursday, October 27, 2016

In defence of the "project player" system

Luke Fitzgerald kick-started a debate in the Irish Examiner on the “project player” policy currently in operation, one which new top alickadoo at World Rugby Agustin Pichot says needs to be reviewed, claiming categorically that “it is wrong”.  I disagree.
Before I go on, some full disclosure just in case you are reading my scribblings for the first time.  I was born in California, in a town (honestly!) called Walnut Creek, before by family moved to Ireland when I was 8.  I barely understood even American football at that age, but at least I had heard of it.  When I first played rugby in school, I hadn’t a clue what was going on.
This isn’t meant to be about my full life story so I’m going to skip ahead to now when I have lived in Ireland pretty much exclusively ever since, had four children born here, and been a fan of Irish rugby indeed all sports exclusively in that time.  So despite the fact that I never really lost my accent, and that I’ll be voting in the presidential election next week, I consider myself to be, to all intents and purposes, a “project fan” of Ireland.
OK - now back to the topic of international rugby.  In an ideal world, a player representing a country should have been born in that country.  I certainly can’t argue with that.  But we don’t live in an ideal world, do we.
We live instead in one where we sometimes need to give ludicrous extreme examples to prove a point.  And when it comes to the whole “You must be born in the country” ideal, that would mean that, for example, Ronan O’Gara would have to play for the USA and Jamie Heaslip would need to hope the Israelis were getting to like rugby more than they do (for those keeping score they are currently ranked 51st).
Like I said, those are extreme examples.  But we all know why they can play for Ireland, right?  Because their families are Irish.  Yet remember what this discussion is actually about...World Rugby needs to have a law in place, so words have to be written down to define who gets to play where.
Once we emerge from the black and white world where nationality is purely defined by birthplace, we find ourselves in a vast expanse clouded by a lot more than fifty shades of grey. 
This leads us first to the “granny rule”.  It’s ok if YOU weren’t born here, once you can prove that one of your parents or grandparents was, or at least is a citizen.  OK, that’s fine - but it’s not without its own problems.  And it’s not hard to come up with an example that’s ridiculous, but still very much possible.
Everyone has four grandparents, right?  What if someone has one each from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales?  If that person shows the talent to be the next Richie McCaw, you can bet there will be an all-out tug-of-war behind the scenes for his allegiance.
Yes, I know, that’s a bit ludicrous.  But on several occasions we have had players eligible for two jurisdictions and this has led to some conflict.  And nowadays over 20 years into the professional era, you can be sure that the agents are the ones making the most out of such conflicts.
But in the end, a decision has to be made, and often a player finds themselves in country where they didn’t grow up, and more often than not they’re playing test rugby ahead of someone else who has lived there all their lives.
Here’s another unlikely scenario for you...say someone can play in two jurisdictions and one of the nations talks them into donning their jersey only to drop them from the squad after one relatively meaningless summer tour?  Wait - IS that unlikely?
Of course it isn’t.  Such practice was commonplace in the amateur era and it hasn’t died a death altogether.  Maybe you don’t want them to play for you, but still you want to stop them from hurting you for someone else to make you look bad for letting them go.  So basically they get "shafted".
If we are to discuss the topic, we can only do so if we also come up with ways to prevent the above practice from taking place.  I’m not saying it’s easy mind you - nobody should ever be guaranteed a place in any team.  But it’s still very much part of the debate.
Before I actually present my defence of the project player I must first make sure you’re reading this piece in the same place as that where I’m writing it.  This is a World Rugby issue, both with the capitals and without.  So to discuss it, we have to take ourselves out of the “(Insert your nationality here) bubble”, something many of us, myself included, often find very difficult.
On the current world rankings that mentioned earlier, there are 72 nations.  But anyone who knows anything about the game will be aware that there are really only ten fully recognized “Tier One” nations, of which Ireland is one.  And when it comes to player pools within those nations, New Zealand and South Africa have proportionally the highest amount of participants by a long stretch.
So basically what this means is that we have two nations with a load of players, another eight playing the game at the highest level and after that, over sixty who are scrambling around amongst themselves with various degrees of success in getting any higher (though when they do climb, there is very much a glass ceiling waiting to meet them - a topic for another day!).
Let’s say you’ve dreamed of being a test outhalf since boyhood.  And what’s more, you have the talent to be just that.  You train, you do everything you’re supposed to, you play to the best of your ability, you impress everyone around you at every level you play.  Yet when you reach test level, there are at least four or five other 10s who are just as good as you are, all vying for the same spot.
Occasionally in Ireland we have scraps like that over a particular position, like Humphreys v O’Gara and O’Gara v Sexton, but when it comes to the All Blacks and the Springboks they have multiple players at multiple different positions...the ABs especially could probably send a third string team on tour that everyone would find hard to beat.
Yet coaches can’t really afford to chop and change between players - they generally have to settle on one or two which leaves the others pretty much in the wilderness despite their ability.
Now, before I go on, I want to make sure you know I appreciate the other side of the argument.  My paragraph earlier which starts “Let’s say you’ve dreamed…” can also be applied to, say, a player growing up in Ireland who gets to the top level only to find his route to wearing the green jersey blocked, not by a fellow countryman, but instead by a project player.
Believe me, I totally understand that.  But that appears to be the only substantive argument made against the project player system, so what I want to do is give the entire topic as much airing as I can so it is fully explored.
So let’s return to the Kiwis and South Africans shall we.  Essentially there’s a massive pool of players well capable of playing test rugby yet unable to purely because of timing and geography.  Is there nothing the governing body can do to give them an opportunity to grace the highest stage?
Up to this point I have been talking about the supply of players, to put it in economics-like terms.  Is there a demand elsewhere to go with it?  Of course there is.
In the other countries in the top tier of rugby, there is tough competition from other sport for the best athletes - soccer, rugby league, GAA, etc.  So even with the best efforts of the various academy structures and recruiting programmes, a sport with such specialist roles like rugby union can often struggle to raise enough talent around the 15 positions to make for a competitive test team.
Then you have the other nations outside the top tier who would benefit greatly from someone joining their ranks who has grown up immersed in the would be a boon for the players around him as well as the fans.
So the supply is there, and the demand is there.  How does the current project player system bring them together? 
Basically it means players (and not merely in NZ and SA of course) have an option to go to another country and prove themselves to be of the standard for test level.  To do this they must spend three years living and playing in said jurisdiction (plus you can tack at least one more year onto that when you consider how much notice they require before making the move).  Given the relatively short playing careers in the sport, I simply cannot fathom how that can’t be considered an appropriate length of time.
I’ve heard talk of stretching it to five years.  For me, that’s like a library telling you that you’re free to borrow books once you take off all your clothes before your browse.  Of course it’s doable, but how many people are ever actually going to do it?  Might as well ditch the project altogether.
Another problem I have with objections...if we’re so determined to have players who come from our country donning the jersey, why do we shun those who opt to play club rugby elsewhere?

Just how much control do we want to have over players’ abilities to ply their trade where they choose?  This thread also touches on the notion of rich clubs restricting players’ ability to train and play for their countries, something I disapprove of strongly but if I harp on that too much I’ll stray in the area of the world rugby calendar and that’s yet another topic for another day!
Back to the matter at hand...I have been at pains not to mention actual examples of particular individuals for this piece.  Some project players have worked out well, others haven’t.  It’s a massive decision for them to take to uproot and literally go halfway around the world and I’d have full understanding for someone who returned home after a while when they realized it hasn’t suited them. 
My final point is that I really don’t understand why some people believe the only solution to perceived problems brought about by the player project system is to essentially get rid of it.  Has anyone suggested retaining the three-year rule but also limiting the amount of project players a country can have in their matchday squad?  That way the flow of players can be restricted...personally I’d say a maximum of two or three for top tier countries and five or six for all the others. 
And maybe instead of talking about moving towards an unattainable ideal, Pichot & co can instead set about making it easier for lower tier countries without the infrastructure of the USAs and Japans to attract some talent that can help the game in their country.
I would have thought that growing the sport as far and wide as possible was the remit of an organization that has relatively recently rebranded itself as “World Rugby” and for me, allowing talent to grace the sport’s highest stage as much as possible can only serve to do just that. 
We need to keep the system, probably with some sensible modifications, and make sure that whenever someone makes the commitment, gives it their all and proves themselves to be good enough, we view them every bit as much a part of the squad as anyone else.
My chance to be the first Walnut Creek-born player to don the green jersey might be long gone but why should we close the door on the next one waiting around the corner? ;-)  JLP


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