Neil Francis: South African by birth, Ulster and Munster by the grace of the IRFU
On September 1, 2017, I was still in summer mode, but did manage to sit down and watch an early season Guinness PRO14 game between Ulster and the Cheetahs at Kingspan Stadium. Ulster scored six tries en route to a convincing 42-19 win in a less than compelling match.
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It was the Cheetahs' debut in the PRO14, so it was curiosity rather than compunction to watch what was a litmus test for the South African side.
There are 14,351 kilometres between Belfast and Bloemfontein. The flight time is just under 20 hours and two stops. A long way to go to get duffed. You could go by bus on the Trans Sahara Highway N1 which would take 185 hours, something the IRFU in the 1980s and 90s would have considered a decent alternative. Either way, logistics are an issue when you play the two South African sides in the PRO14.
For some it is worth it. Playing that day in Belfast was Makazole Mapimpi - and the Cheetahs winger scored a try that day. Little did he, or we, know that two years later he would score the first try in the World Cup final in Yokohama. Keep playing, keep trying and you never know where you will end up.
After the match there was the endless rounds of player and coach interviews, which really at this stage should be dispensed with universally. If you can't ask a question or just give an intelligent or honest answer then don't appear in front of a camera.
After the South African entourage had done their bit it was time for Ulster to give their views. First up was man of the match Jean Deysel.
It was a truly remarkable coincidence that Ulster's flanker was born in the Orange Free State of South Africa. He just happened to be wearing a white shirt with a blood spattered hand on the emblem.
Next up to give the Ulster view was Marcel Coetzee. Now Marcel was less effusive in his praise for the debutants in the PRO14 because he was born in Potchefstroom in the Transvaal. They don't like each other that much - it's a South African thing!
The TV people excelled themselves by next interviewing Robbie Diack for another Ulster view. It is true that Robbie was born in Johannesburg, but he was eligible to play for Ireland after the three-year residency rule. Before Robbie could say anything I switched off the TV.
Wiehahn Herbst, Louis Ludik and Rob Herring could have been interviewed that day as well - I didn't wait around to find out. Charles Piutau of Tonga, New Zealand, the Auckland Blues, Wasps, Ulster and now the Bristol Bears could have thrown his tuppence worth in too for all I cared. I think you get the point I'm trying to make at this stage.
Last Saturday in Thomond Park, Ulster fielded a pack against Munster that did not include one player born in the province. Not only that, but three of the eight replacements that came onto the field of play in the pack were also born and rugby reared away from the province. That is not healthy - that is not good.
As time rolls on, bits fall off. Ulster's mainstays are due back after the World Cup, but this time Rory Best won't be there to buttress his side in the front row, and only Iain Henderson remains as a lightning rod for Ulster supporters' focus and attention. The Orange Free Staters have gone, but in the main they have been replaced by Real Free Staters - possibly good news for Ireland but how good is it for Ulster particularly if they have a poor season?
Last season was half decent - a Heineken Cup quarter-final and a real go at Leinster, but the 50-20 PRO14 semi-final loss to Glasgow in Scotstoun was one step forward and 10 steps back. They just gave up. They just don't have the quality or depth of indigenous or imported players. They are, however, not the only Irish province whose academy is not cutting the mustard.
Last week it was announced that Damian de Allende and Rudolph Gerhardus Snyman, who won the World Cup with South Africa, would be decamping to Munster. The way that the signings were announced gave the impression that it was great news. It was good news in the sense that Munster can still attract players of this calibre to come and play for them.
The first question I have to ask is where are Munster getting the money to pay for these players? There is no question that they are players of real quality - De Allende in particular. De Allende, one of the players of the tournament and a winner's medal to boot, would on the open market be able to command north of €750k. Snyman would be a bit behind him. Where did Munster get the sponds for that?
The next question is who sanctioned it? This may be a good deal for Munster but it is bad business for Ireland. Lest we forget, the national team produce nearly 90% of all Union income in this country.
Ireland cannot use these players for their own purposes and I presume there are clauses in their contracts which allow them to play for South Africa during their international windows. We are looking after and financing South African internationals during their gap years to the detriment of our own.
It was interesting to note that during the PRO14 match last Saturday that Rory Scannell was named Man of the Match. A worthy winner!
When De Allende, arrives Scannell won't get a look in. Scannell was picked for a number of Joe Schmidt's squads but always on the periphery - he would need constant exposure for Munster to go further. Maybe that is now as far as he goes.
The same too for Fineen Wycherley, the young Munster man, maybe not tall enough at 6'4" to play international rugby, certainly when you compare him to Giant Haystacks (Snyman), who is 6'10" and is an enormous physical specimen.
Wycherley, despite his great promise, won't get a look in. Is this a tacit recognition that Munster's Academy just is not functioning properly and producing players of the requisite quality?
You have an unfortunate flipside to this where you could easily end up with a back five in your pack next season of Snyman, Jean Kleyn, Arno Botha, Chris Cloete and CJ Stander - an all-South African back five.
What happened to the days when successful Irish packs were backboned by quality Munster forwards? Where is this going? Are Munster now Ulster in disguise?