Bye bye Project, Hello IQ

  • “So just how strong is Northern Hemisphere rugby – when the likes of Ireland, Scotland and even Britain are basically strip mining Southern Hemisphere rugby for talent?”

    I read this somewhat disdainful, even scornful, (if somewhat geographically challenged) question on a website a couple of weeks ago. It was a fair question that deserved a good answer. An answer based on facts and figures where possible. So I decided to look at one of the principal culprits standing in the SH dock - Irish rugby.

    ACT ONE - Grey Men and Giddy Garters

    Picture it. Near midnight on 31 December 2020. An overheated drawing room in a three story building on Lansdowne Road in Dublin. A grandfather clock ticks slowly down to the new year as a group of grey-suited old men raise their glasses of Gunpowder Gin in silent toast to the passing of the oval ball game in the Emerald Isle. On the walls around them hang portraits of once great Irish players who graced the game - Gibson, O'Connell, McBride, Aki, Fe'ololloutuasi'i, McStander. The unspoken thought passes amongst them. Doomsday has finally come. The Project Player Era is over.

    A stifled sob breaks the silence as one of the men stands to trace his hand lovingly across a picture, 'Oh CJ, will we e'er see your likes again?' Heads shake silently in mournful assent. The clock whirrs in the gloom as its minute hand creeps towards the hour. Suddenly the door bursts open and bright light and loud music fills the air. As the greying men wince at the intrusion, a sharp-suited young man moves into the room waving his arms enthusiastically towards the door 'Come on, come on, you old farts, time to stop brooding in here, and join the IQ party!, The gang’s all here - John Murphy, Brian Murphy, Gerry Murphy, Mick McCarthy (no, not that one), Jim McCarthy, Sean McCarthy, the O'Brien twins, the O’Driscoll triplets….his voice fades as he sails back out the open door. The old men look silently at each other for a moment or two until one stands and moves to the door. He turns and in a brighter voice says: “He’s right, you know. Time to put our little project to rest and welcome in the new." He raises his glass and cries “To the IQ!” The group hesitates, and then raise their glasses in unison “ The IQ!”. One by one they totter out the door, a little gleam of light appearing in their eyes, their steps quickening, ankle garters snapping as they hasten towards the new dawn awaiting.

    Lights fade - end Act One

    ACT TWO - The Foreigners Aren’t Coming, They’re Already Bloody Here

    In one sense, Ireland has always had non-Irish players in its team. Right from the get go, they were all deemed British citizens back in 1883. When Ireland gained its independence in 1921, and partition of the island saw Northern Ireland created, many sporting organisations chose to stay as they were founded - GAA football, hurling, golf, tennis, hockey, boxing and of course, rugby. Each used the age-old provincial structure of Leinster, Munster, Connacht and the province which spanned the border line, Ulster to organise themselves administratively into regional branches. In rugby, the IRFU based in Dublin controlled all four.

    In the early years, given its close and historical ties, many English-born players with parental ties to Ireland donned the green jersey. And in turn, many of the best Irish players, played for clubs in England. That continued up to the arrival of the professional age in August 1995. Even then, not much changed with high profile players such as Keith Wood continuing to play for Saracens in England. The Ireland test team meanwhile took players from wherever they could find them - England, SA, even a young travelling Kiwi, Kurt McQuilkin, playing for amateur club Bective Rangers got 5 caps in 1996. But even under their new Kiwi coach, Warren Gatland, the Ireland results were abject..

    In the period from 8 Aug 1995 to the end of the millennium, Ireland played 46 test matches and lost 31 of them to not just NZ, Aus and SA, but also Grand Slammers Scotland, England, France, Italy, Romania, USA, Canada. Ireland ‘won’ the Six Nations wooden spoon for three years in a row. As 1999 came to a close, Ireland travelled to Lens, France in the RWC to play Argentina in a pool match, lost 24-28, and didn’t qualify for the knockouts.

    Ireland had reached its nadir.

    ACT THREE - Is That A Light I See Before Me?

    And then something changed at the beginning of 2000. The IRFU, in their infinite wisdom and a lot of dusty heel-dragging and half-hearted protests finally agreed to fund the four provincial teams properly and professionally. Up to that point, the four provinces played each other - a lot - and that was it for preparation for test matches and development of players, unless they were outside the country. A year later, they entered the provincial teams into an outside league to play against Welsh and Scottish teams and the Celtic League took off with 15 teams split into two conferences. To the IRFU’s surprise, the Irish clubs made it to the top and ended up in the final, with Leinster taking the first title. Heady days. And more was to follow for the Ireland team.

    The Six Nations was created with Italy joining the mix and Ireland started winning matches - and more than just the occasional one. Brian O’Driscoll announced himself by scoring a hat-trick against France in Paris. Eddie O’Sullivan got behind the coaching wheel and began building the team. Players started moving back to play in Ireland.

    From 1 Jan 2000 to end of 2003, Ireland played 47 matches and won 32 of them - a 69% win rate. The player names and their clubs changed too. As the all-conquering England team hammered Ireland into the turf to win a Grand Slam in 2003, the future of the team and its home player base was beginning to take shape:

    G Murphy (Leicester); J Bishop (London Irish), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), K Maggs (Bath), D Hickie (Leinster); D Humphreys (Ulster), P Stringer (Munster); M Horan (Munster), S Byrne (Leinster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), G Longwell (Ulster), V Costello (Leinster), K Gleeson (Leinster), A Foley (Munster). Replacements: F Sheahan (Munster), J Fitzpatrick (Ulster), P O'Connell (Munster), A Quinlan (Munster), G Easterby (Llanelli), R O'Gara (Munster), G Dempsey (Leinster).

    Gordon Darcy was Ireland Cap Number 950 in Oct 1999. Over the next decade, 60 first caps were all handed out to Irish-born players and the two Easterby brothers born in England to an Irish mother, until Tom Court, an Australian-born prop with Irish grandparents got one in Feb 2009. Then another 28 Irish-born caps followed with players like Cian Healy, Johnny Sexton, Devin Toner starting to emerge.

    And then, Ireland hit a speed bump. The provincial teams had been developing further and further with Munster finally breaking through on the European scene to win the Heineken Cup in 2006. They repeated the feat 2 years later. The Anglo-French hegemony on European honours was being broken. Next up were Leinster winning in 2009, and going on a powerful run over the next few seasons. Irish teams won the Heineken Cup 5 times in 7 years.

    Their success was due in part to the presence of high-profile, capped foreign players who had been creeping into club squads over the previous years. Particularly in one position - prop. The IRFU began to set quotas on the number of foreign players in the three main squads of Ulster, Leinster and Munster. But there was no real plan and position depth continued to suffer at test level.

    Irish props were rapidly becoming a rare commodity. Tighthead prop, John Hayes of Munster, became the most valuable player in the country, because depth behind him was threadbare. Irish coach, Declan Kidney, prayed every night that he wouldn’t get an injury. Bench replacement props were raw and low quality. And then the ones they did have, got injured. Hayes soldiered on and was the cornerstone for the Grand Slam squad as they finally broke a 61-year wait in 2009. The team went on to remain unbeaten for the year winning against the Lions-tour winners and Tri-Nations champions, South Africa.

    During 2009, Leinster were on the lookout for a new hooker and spotted Richardt Strauss, a young South African plying his trade with the Cheetahs. A deal was agreed to trial him for a year with the club. Foreign player quotas were already at their limit at the club, so Leinster suggested that he could be a special project player who if he developed and stayed for three years, could become an Irish qualified player. The deal went through. It was a slightly unusual move, but largely unremarked at the time, since there were none following in his footsteps.

    ACT FOUR - Player Succession Strategy: NIEs & Special Projects

    By 2011, the prop shortage was becoming painfully obvious and hooker was looking bare too with injuries curtailing the careers of two players in relatively quick succession. Ireland’s performance in the RWC that year finally pushed the IRFU into action. In December, they launched the Player Succession Strategy - a set of “guidelines’ for Ulster, Munster and Leinster to follow in contracting foreign players with a view to developing Irish qualified players and have at least two test quality players in every position.

    The three big provinces (Connacht was excluded as a development province) could only recruit 15 players in total, each representing a playing position. Each province was allowed 4 non-Irish Eligible players and one ‘special project’ player who could become Irish qualified. If Leinster got a foreign hooker, then the other two couldn’t have one. Propping recruits were going to be especially scrutinised. With good reason. Ireland had already been steamrollered into the turf on a number of test match occasions by all and sundry and it wasn’t getting any prettier as the 2012 season ended. The provinces continued to largely focus on the experienced capped players, with Leinster even bringing in Brad Thorn for a short-term stint in the third Heineken Cup winning season. It would be one of the last big-name signings they would make as foreign capped player salaries started to rise appreciably.

    The Player Succession Strategy also had another couple of wrinkles. In general, foreign player contracts could no longer be renewed. And any injury replacement player had to be an Irish-qualified player. Inevitably, at season end in June 2012, a few foreign players left Irish shores to ply their trade elsewhere. Leinster now needed a prop. And with more injuries occurring on the June tour, so did Ireland for the coming season. The cupboard was looking bare.

    Enter Michael Bent. Bent was a young prop toiling away on both sides of the scrum for Taranaki. He was doing well and winning admiration from team-mates and opposition players alike. He got a call from Leinster who asked if he was interested in joining the squad. He also happened to have an Irish grandmother, so he wouldn’t qualify as a foreign player under the quotas. But first things first, Leinster wanted to have a look at him. He headed off for Leinster in October, eager to start his first PRO12 match.

    Meanwhile, Richardt Strauss had completed his 3 years residency earlier in the year, and was being considered for test selection in the November Internationals. Declan Kidney named his squad and to Strauss’ delight his name was on the list. Journalists prepared to write their stories, and then stopped as they saw the next name on the list under props - Michael Bent. Cue uproar.

    Strauss started and Bent came on as a replacement in their first match against South Africa. They lost. Irish rugby commentators went into meltdown. Not about Richardt Strauss who was now a family favourite at Leinster, and had learned off all the words to the Irish national anthem - in Irish - before the game. Their ire was reserved for the Kiwi bloke just off the plane and hadn’t even played for his club. Kidney was roasted. Subsequent thrashings of Fiji (53-0) and Argentina (46-24) did nothing to stem the tide. Bent got one more cap, then got moved to the Irish Wolfhounds and then to the Emerging Ireland side. He remains a crowd favourite at Leinster even if his test career was short-lived.

    Another 18 Irish-born caps flowed into the squad as Joe Schmidt took over the national reins. Schmidt didn’t suffer fools gladly and wasn’t fazed by a critical media. He was going to use whatever players at his disposal to build a better, deeper squad. His success at Leinster had garnered him a lot of credit in the public bank. Robbie Diack, a South African who had been playing for Ulster since 2008, got his first cap six years later in 2014. In the same squad, Rodney Ah You, a young NZ player who had only moved to Connacht on an 18-month injury contract in 2010, benefited from a sudden injury to Marty Moore, and went on a tour to Argentina to win the first of 3 caps for Ireland. Rob Herring, SA-born but qualified through his Irish grandmother, was up next to win his one and only cap.

    But all eyes were focused on the Autumn when the potential successor to Brian O’Driscoll’s crown was about to be capped. Not an Irish-born player. Not a player who had Irish parentage. Instead a full-blown Kiwi. A publicly named special project player - Jared Payne. Payne had arrived into Ulster in full media glare on a three-year contract that would get him residency-qualified and ready for test action. This was planned with deliberation. And when the time came for him to be announced in the squad to face South Africa in November, another storm was expected. But this time it was largely one of approval. Ireland winning handsomely mollified a lot and Payne’s new midfield partner, Robbie Henshaw, no doubt helped ease a few malcontents unhappy that another Irish jersey had been given away. Payne proved his worth, and became a mainstay of Schmidt’s side, with the Kiwi’s defensive nous a welcome replacement for the departed duo of O’Driscoll and Darcy.

    The critics didn’t have long to wait before another fortuitous player, Nathan White, was handed a test cap. In a recent interview, White who retired from the game last year and now coaches at Connacht, laughs about the notion about him being seen as a project player. ““Not at all, I had a one-year contract [with Leinster],” says White of any initial thoughts of playing for Ireland. “I was probably looking at that one year and then it was basically ‘what are we going to do after that?’ Connacht came along and we had enjoyed our time in Dublin, and thought it would be nice to stay in Ireland. The kids really enjoy it here.” Connacht gave him another year, and then extended it. 4 years on, he became cap number 1070.

    A year later, another South African player joined the fray. CJ Stander had been playing his footy in SA and had hopes to break into the Boks. As the story goes, he got knocked back being told he was too small for his flanker position and encouraged to maybe try hooker. He decided to look further afield. Munster were looking for a 6/8 to replace a number of foreign players who had filled the role, but whose contracts had been finished. Munster’s quota of foreign players was full. however. And while Stander fit the bill for Munster, Ireland wasn’t even short of backrowers. They were backing up in Leinster between O’Brien, Ruddock, McLaughlin, Ryan, Leavy, van der Flier, et al and none of them wanted to move to Munster. In the end, Munster got their man, but only on a two -year contract to run until 2014. He was nominated as a ‘project player’, even though they already had one - Gerhard van den Heever - who was not working out. Stander had his contract renewed, and four years later got his first Irish cap in the 2016 Six Nations.

    Quinn Roux had also come to Leinster on a short-term one year contract. He was then loaned out to Connacht. With a contract extension, four years later, Schmidt capped him on the tour to South Africa.

    In December 2015, David Nucifora, the IRFU High Performance Director, in a media interview said about the Player Succession Strategy "“At the moment it is four-plus-one and that is what was decided before I got here. But the four-plus-one is merely a number. It is a maximum and each player that is put forward has to fit into a business case and if they don’t fit into the province’s business model and the succession planning of the national side they it is not a good fit. So it doesn’t have to be four-plus-one."

    ACT FIVE - What’s The Future Look Like, Then?

    Ironically, despite the Player Succession Programme only applying to Ulster, Leinster and Munster, they aren't filling their NIE quotas, and it is Connacht which has generated the most amount of residency-qualified players who were capped through circumstance rather than any planned programme. Jake Heenan and Tom McCartney (now 32) are another two players in the Western side who qualify to play due to their time there but haven’t made the cut. Next up for possible selection is Bundee Aki, who is fortunate enough that two players with capped experience are out of contention in November - Garry Ringrose and Stuart Olding. Aki trained with the wider squad last month but his selection isn’t a slam dunk with other players boosting for contention, particularly Leinster’s Rory O’Loughlin who was capped by Schmidt on the USA/Japan tour last June.

    Tyler Bleyendaal, a 10/12 for Munster will residency qualify in January. Yet another player dubbed special project to get him into the quota, the NZ-born player could be considered for the Six Nations, and was invited into the training squad last month. With Paddy Jackson out of contention due to a pending legal case, he may get a shot although Ian Keatley or Joey Carbery may see it differently to get the bench spot for Sexton.

    As some of these players move out of contention, others may come into view in the future - Rhys Marshall, hooker, Jean Kleyn, lock -both at Munster, and Jamison Gibson Park, a back-up scrum half at Leinster are two years away from consideration before the final curtain falls.

    This season’s November squad hasn’t been announced yet. From the most recent named Ireland squad of 52 for 2016-17, there were 11 Irish qualified through parentage or residency.

    Bealham – 26 – Aus (moved to Ireland age 18), Cooney, Scotland (age 6), Dillane, France (7), Heaslip, Israel (2), Carbery, NZ (age 11), Marmion, England (17), Reidy, NZ (age 25), Treadwell, England (20)

    Payne – now 32 – NZ (Residency), Roux – 26 – SA (Residency), Stander – 27 – SA (Residency).

    In last 3 years approx, 5 non-Irish born parentage players were capped at under age 25. The 3 residency players were 25 or older.

    In last 3 years approx, 25 Irish born players in current squad capped under age 25. 
That excludes players not in above squad like Jordi Murphy, Niyi Adeolokun, Matt Healy, Ian Madigan, Dom Ryan, James Cronin, Marty Moore who were all capped under 25. 32 in total.

    If these 3-year or longer residency players were to be selected in next few months, Jake Heenan is 25, Tyler Bleyendaal and Bundee Aki are currently 27, Wiehann Herbst 29, Louis Ludik 30, Tom McCartney 32. Looking at other possible residency players down the line if they stay in Ireland, James Lowe would be 28, Rhys Marshall and Gibson-Park would be 27, Jean Kleyn 26, Schalk van der Merwe 29, at time of residency.

    Perhaps consider who has actually been capped since 2012 and for how long:
    Payne 20 caps, Strauss 17, (finished) Stander 15, White 13,(ret’d) Ah You 3, (finished) Roux 3, it doesn’t make for exciting reading for residency player hopefuls.

    The IRFU only centrally contracts 15 players currently. In other words, those who are likely to be in the first team squad for an Ireland test. The current list has

    Devin Toner (Leinster – June 2020) Tommy Bowe (Ulster – 2018), Rory Best (Ulster – 2018), Peter O’Mahony (Munster – 2018), Jared Payne (Ulster – 2018). The 2018 ones will be reviewed this season with possibly Bowe, Best and Payne moving off the list given their ages.

    The remainder are all contracted until post-World Cup 2019:

    Jack McGrath (Leinster 2019), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster 2019, Rob Kearney (Leinster 2019), Iain Henderson (Ulster 2019), Sean O’Brien (Leinster – 2019), Keith Earls (Munster – 2019), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster – 2019), Johnny Sexton (Leinster – 2019), Cian Healy (Leinster – 2019), Conor Murray (Munster – 2019).

    So will it all stop?

    Whilst the new 5-year residency regulation doesn’t come into effect until 1 Jan 2021, in reality, it starts from 1 Jan 2018, after which any player contracted would have to wait 5 years before qualifying.

    Anticipating that the writing was on the wall, the IRFU has invested €10m in the last 2.5 years in the new Domestic Pathway Programme which has seen 80 players enter the four provincial academies on 3-year development programmes. By 2023, the intent is to have four player depth in each position feeding a 60 player wider test squad, according to David Nucifora.

    Nucifora was also instrumental in another initiative launched following the WR residency announcement last May. The IRFU held a press conference around the new IQ Rugby programme which seeks to find and develop already Irish-qualified playing talent and bring them into the provincial system where appropriate. This will be done through the long-established Exiles (fifth) branch of the Union based in the UK. A number of Irish-qualified players have been identified and brought over to play in Ireland this season, including Kieran Treadwell from UK, and Irish-born Chris Farrell and James Hart from France. JJ Hanrahan rejoined the fly-half ranks at Munster. John Cooney moved from Connacht to Ulster and already the Ulster fans are saying 'Ruan who?' after his electric season start.

    That ends my somewhat biased summation for the jury. Deliberate in your own time.

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