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Great players though they are, 'Paddy come latelys' are benefiting from a system that is simply wrong

In wilderness: Simon Zebo had the Ireland door slammed shut after moving to Racing 92
In wilderness: Simon Zebo had the Ireland door slammed shut after moving to Racing 92

By Tony Ward

The global nature of the modern professional game has led to many positives for rugby but also many negatives, and the glut of inter-country transfers that we are witnessing nowadays is a blight on the sport.

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A pre-match conversation with former Scotland and Lions No.8 Johnny Beattie in Edinburgh last weekend reinforced this view. Not that it is anything new to the Scots, any more than it is to us, but Beattie pointed out that some 14 of the squad of 23 sent for duty against Ireland by Gregor Townsend did not learn their rugby in Scotland.

Make of that what you will, but the bottom line is that this false patriotism (not in every case, I might add) is endemic in every nation in the northern hemisphere. To the best of my knowledge, it is not yet working in reverse, although there are splintered examples, with London-born full-back John Gallagher (of Irish parentage) central to the New Zealand World Cup-winning team of 1987.

I am sure there are others but they are few and far between as the southern hemisphere has been much more protective of the worth of home-produced players when selected to line out at the highest level.

Just this week we had football under the spotlight given the mad-hatter situation of a three-times-capped senior international footballer Declan Rice declaring for England, the land of his birth, after representing the Republic at almost every under-age level.

No doubt there are financially-driven, agent-backed reasons for this switch now, but caps must be in Fifa competition before they really, really count. Have you ever heard such nonsense? It stinks to high heaven.

But before we point any fingers, a peek inside our own house would be well worth the exercise. I have to say that I detest the current World Rugby system, which has been adopted to the letter by the IRFU and by the Irish team management, whereby players can choose to represent a country on the basis of residency.

They call them 'project players', but these are guys who are here on contract anyway and earning a damn good living irrespective of the added incentive of an Irish cap (if they so wish) being dangled in front of them in order to seal the deal.

Players like CJ Stander (and I don't care how well he sings the anthem), Quinn Roux, Bundee Aki (think back to the job he made of finally deciding to make his chosen cap green), Jared Payne and so on are all top quality but they are not Irish.

The IRFU, and by extension Joe Schmidt and his fellow selectors, are simply applying the rules but the rules are wrong - plain and simply wrong.

Even a five-year incubation period has me ill at ease, but better that than the current three-year country of convenience clause attached to most lucrative overseas contracts in this day and age.

Schmidt and David Nucifora are playing the laws as laid down by the game's governing body but that doesn't make them right. All those project players to have worn green have been and are top quality, but with hand on heart, and I accept I might be in the minority on this one given our recent success, I wish no overseas players qualified for Ireland other than through blood line or lineage.

The principle of 'Paddy come latelys' from varying corners of the globe qualifying to wear green while those born, bred and nurtured through the rugby system, whether at school or local club (youth), and then overtaken by imports is wrong, plain and simply wrong... full stop.

This is not a cut at individual players. Stander is an obvious example. I love his style and wholehearted commitment, whether wearing Munster red or Ireland green, but that doesn't make him Irish and certainly doesn't make the system right.

When team-mates, specifically at international level, are questioned as to the principle and legitimacy of project player selection, naturally they defend their playing peers against the nasty media, but they are wrong and deep down they know it. To add to the confused message being sent to young and developing indigenous Irish players, and I include genuine exiles in that, is the fact that should they step outside these shores in search of a crust they are all but banned from international selection.

I am surprised that such a ruling (albeit unwritten) hasn't yet been challenged in law (in the European Court of Human Rights or wherever) by an overseas-based player or his agent.

Of course I understand the rationale behind Irish management's thinking, specifically when players they rate move beyond their control, but effectively banning them from Test selection smacks of Kangaroo Court syndrome and I am not being melodramatic.

Even for young Irish players who, say, miss out on provincial academy selection, and by extension the possibility of a home-based professional career, the door to future involvement is effectively slammed shut before they make what I believe to be a really courageous move when chasing the dream.

It is not set in stone, and in times past players like Keith Wood, Johnny Sexton and Tommy Bowe have managed to combine playing abroad with an uninterrupted Test career here, and yet now we have the likes of Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan and Ian Madigan under the unofficial cloak of persona non grata.

Take it as read that somewhere down the road that unwritten rule will be abolished and ability allied to form, and not place of occupation, will determine selection. But for now it is what it is and it matters not a jot that every other country is playing the system as in 'them's the rules', albeit with much less rigidly imposed sanctions.

In the opening two rounds of this year's Six Nations, we have had specific issues at full-back and second-row yet, despite Zebo and Ryan offering clear alternatives, that door was firmly shut despite consistency of performance at a very high level in the Top 14 and Europe dictating that under normal circumstances both would be in the mix.

I feel particularly sorry for Ryan given that he was forced to seek comparable employment elsewhere when denied a central contract by the IRFU.

Now with Sean O'Brien set to become the latest wild goose to fly, it will be interesting to see just how rigidly his future Test days are numbered. Once Zebo announced well in advance that he would be moving, he was removed from the frame. Rest assured, and rightly so, that the Tullow Tank will see out this Six Nations and the World Cup to follow. It smacks of inconsistency given the sanctions imposed on Zebo once it was made public that he would be on his way.

In terms of success, these are exciting times for Irish rugby, but I do have great difficulty with a system whereby players who did learn the game here are given their hat and shown the door while a project player system has been put in place to attract players who wouldn't have known where this island was when growing up, never mind we have always played the game with intent and ambition.

It is difficult to argue against the IRFU aspiration to discourage an exodus of talent at the cost of the national team, and that maybe a drip will become a flood. It is neither black nor white and there should be shades of grey. But irrespective of recent success, I am uncomfortable with a system that favours non-Irish players over indigenous ones, particularly those who have come up through the ranks.

The three-year residency ruling ends at the end of next year and it can't be banished quickly enough.

Belfast Telegraph


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