Pedrie Wannenburg’s departure when the season ends is in danger of heightening concerns over the IRFU’s tough new stance on signing overseas players.
Wannenburg, it seems, was keen to stay with Ulster whose initial offer was not quite of the level required to keep him.
That is standard when it comes to negotiations; employers suggest a figure below what they expect to pay, thereby leaving themselves a little in reserve which can then be used to up the offer; employees, in turn, ask for a little more than they expect to receive, giving them the opportunity to arrive at a more realistic level by appearing to yield by stepping down a little.
But it appears that the extra money Ulster hoped they could raise — from the IRFU — was not available this time.
The truth is that with the union’s emphasis now on Irish-born or Irish-qualified players, there was little chance of them giving Ulster a financial leg-up to facilitate a contract extension for a 31-year-old South African back row forward.
Presumably the IRFU will have pointed to the return this summer of Ulster native, Roger Wilson, from Northampton Saints.
In addition, there is little doubt that they would like to see Chris Henry deployed at No 8, the berth currently occupied by Wannenburg.
Up until the Springbok’s arrival in 2010, Henry lined out in the middle of the back row. In the past two seasons, however, he has tended to be used on the flank, something which may not have gone down particularly well with the IRFU.
That is understandable for given Jamie Heaslip’s poor form in the 2012 Six Nations campaign one can see where they are coming from; someone putting him under pressure for his jersey would not go amiss.
The fear in Dublin 4 — and the events of Saturday past at Twickenham certainly did nothing to suggest that homeward-inclined thinking on the matter is too far wide of the mark — is that, at international level, Irish rugby is suffering as a result of the number of overseas players currently playing for the provinces.
Mike Ross’s injury brought it all into sharp focus; Ireland did not have a tight-head to deputise. Ulster’s number three is Kiwi John Afoa. Munster’s scrum cornerstone comes in the shape of BJ Botha.
Ulster have five overseas players — the maximum number permitted — in that category. They are Wannenburg, fellow-South Africans Johann Muller — Ulster’s captain — and Ruan Pienaar, New Zealander John Afoa and Scotland’s Simon Danielli — Jared Payne is seen as a ‘project player’ who has not played for the All Blacks and will qualify for Ireland after three years.
Scotland ‘overseas’? Yes. As a Scot, he is not eligible for Ireland, hence his status.
Leinster also have a quintet; Isa Nacewa, Heinke Van Der Merwe, Mat Berquist, Nathan White and Richardt Strauss.
Brad Thorn — like Ulster’s Stefan Terblanche — is a temporary signing to see Leinster through an injury problem. Terblanche was brought in when Payne was injured while Thorn was recruited when Leo Cullen was injured and Steven Sykes departed after an unhappy stint in Dublin.
Munster are buoyed up from abroad in the form of BJ Botha, Wian Du Preez, Doug Howlett and Lifeimi Mafi.
Current contracts will be honoured, of course, but if the Wannenburg example is to be the new yardstick, the probability of extensions once those expire would be remote.
A definite statement from the IRFU on the subject of overseas players is imminent,
the speculation at this stage being that, under new legislation, provinces will be restricted to four imports in tandem with the facility for a short-term loan signing along the Terblanche/Thorn lines. Currently the status quo is five plus one (Payne).
Ultimately this must mean greater opportunities for Irish players, whereupon the policy will have been vindicated. In the interim, in the absence of many of their star attractions, the provinces will worry about their ability to fill their stadia.
Players of the calibre of Muller, Pienaar, Wannenburg, Afoa, hopefully Payne when he recovers from his ruptured Achilles tendon and Terblanche, who was brought in to replace the Kiwi when that injury befell him, are box-office performers capable of attracting spectators.
And when all is said and done, backsides on seats and results on the pitch is professional sport’s raison d’etre.
Those Irish players presently are being kept waiting by others — who at this point are better — are learning as a result of being in their company.
Would anybody seriously dispute that Paul Marshall, for example, has benefited enormously from working alongside Pienaar? Or that Dan Tuohy has not progressed significantly in the company of Muller?
Irish rugby can ill-afford a conflict of interests between the union and the provinces. That must be avoided at all costs, hence the need for a properly negotiated settlement with which all parties are happy.