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Ireland's imports could make major impact

Updated: Tuesday, 13 Nov 2012 16:10 | Comments

Michael Bent gets acquainted with hurling shortly after arriving from New Zealand
Michael Bent gets acquainted with hurling shortly after arriving from New Zealand

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by Brendan Cole

Stander, Strauss, Payne and Bent.

If they don’t end up playing for Ireland at the next Rugby World Cup, they could look into setting up a firm of solicitors together.

As it stands, the rugby looks like working out pretty well.

Strauss will play for Ireland this November and Bent is likely to be capped off the bench. Payne, arguably the most effective outside back currently playing in the RaboDirect Pro12, is an odds-on bet to do so when he qualifies in 2014.

It will be three years before Stander qualifies but his credentials give the young South African if all goes well with Munster.

The situation does not sit well with everyone.

Despite having a family connection, Bent’s parachute drop straight off the plane and into the squad has attracted more negative reaction than the Strauss, who has qualified through residency.

Former Ireland captain Keith Wood is the leading voice to have come out strongly against his selection, describing it as ‘wrong’ and ‘unpalatable’ in a Newstalk interview. Marcus Horan, capped over 67 times for Ireland, also voiced disquiet at how the move would impact on players who had worked for years to achieve international recognition.

The selection of Richardt Strauss impacts on Sean Cronin and could well mean less caps. CJ Stander and Sean Payne could some day keep a home grown talent out of the Ireland team squad.

But in the wake of the disastrous scrum collapse at Twickenham that many former players and supporters, probably a majority, have taken a more pragmatic view.

The issue is not a new one in rugby. In fact, rugby has traditionally had a relaxed approach to nationality. In the truly amateur days, players simply lined out for whichever country they happened to fetch up in. 

Jack Gage is a typical early example.Educated at Campbell College and Queens University, Gage played for Ireland four times in the Four Nations Championship between 1925 and 1927 before going on to play a single Test match for the Springboks against Australia in 1933.

That type of story is far from unusual in the early days of the game.

Later, New Zealand were trailblazers in taking a more structured approach to picking up players from their hinterland.

Though born in Auckland, the brilliant winger Bryan Williams broke new ground when he became the first player with Pacific Island heritage to represent New Zealand in 1970.

Since then, many of the greatest talents from the rugby hotbeds in the Pacific have ended up wearing All Black, including the great Samoan-born openside Michael Jones. 

Australia, typically, pushed things a bit further by simply hanging on to the Argentinian prop Enrique Rodriguez after he toured the country with the Pumas. In 1987, Londoner John Gallagher, who emigrated to New Zealand three years earlier to play club rugby, became the first Englishman to lift the Rugby World Cup.

Ireland’s first serious foray into the area came in 1989, when Brian Smith was controversially parachuted in to the side shortly after arriving from Australia. Smith, who qualified on the ‘granny rule’ had already played for his homeland on five occasions.

He was part of the Ireland squad at the 1991 Rugby World Cup, but Ralph Keyes was the first choice by the time Ireland came within a whisker of upsetting the Aussies in the quarter-final.

Antipodean recruits continued to be capped from time to time. Two – Kurt McQuilkin and Andy Ward - were first picked on the grounds of residency in the mid 90s. Dion O’Cuinnegain and Matt Mostyn were among the others who arrived from long-distance to play for Ireland on the basis of family connections.

Mirroring the soccer team, the 1990s saw Irish rugby pick up players from the English club game. Rob Saunders, Simon Geoghegan, Jim Staples, Kevin Maggs and Rob Henderson were among the success stories.

By the late 1990s, the trend for players to play for two nations was beginning to look incongruous - five ex-All Blacks turned up in the Japan team at RWC 1999 - and the practice was banned.

Recently, England have led the way in picking players on the grounds of residency and/or family connections. Brad Barritt, Matt Stevens, Shontayne Hape, Mouritz Botha and Ricky Flutey, Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi.

The new trend of young players leaving behind the chance of a career with their own country to target an international career somewhere else is arguably the greatest cause for concern.

Relatively low-key solutions could be tried. One would be a limit on  the number of players in each international side qualifying by way of residency. Over time, such a limit could expire for individual players after a reasonably high number of caps are earned. 

Whatever happens, until there is a move at IRB level, Ireland should not be particularly embarrassed about taking advantage of the rules. The hand-wringing should be kept to a minimum.

Those with their hand on the tiller of Irish rugby have often been accused of lacking foresight. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of the rules, the ‘project players’ show that the long-term plan first shown to the public in December 2011 has actually been put in place and acted on in a structured way.

That is rare enough in Irish rugby.

Five Imported Players Who Could Line Out For Ireland At RWC 2015:

1. Richardt Strauss: A cousin of the current Springbok hooker Adriaan, Strauss arrived just over three years. His looked like a project destined to fail after he spent his first season under Michael Cheika floating between the reserve British and Irish Cup team and the periphery of the firsts. Much more prominent under Joe Schmidt, he has been the hooker of choice in big games over the last two seasons for Leinster and now looks set for a successful Ireland career.

2. Jared Payne: A recognised talent at Super 15 level who could not quite get a look in internationally, Payne missed almost all of last season through injury but has been a star for Ulster in the RaboDirect Pro12 this term. He would bring pace, size and versatility to Ireland. The 27-year-old will qualify in 2014.

3. CJ Stander: A former ‘Baby Boks’ captain, Stander is one of a host of talented back-rowers coming through the ranks in South Africa. He has opted to throw in his lot with Munster, and what looks a relatively clear route to regular top level rugby. Should in theory have a good chance at lining out for Ireland if everything works out, but won’t become Irish qualified for three years.

4. Michael Bent: After bubbling under the surface for years, tighthead became a crisis position for Ireland when Tom Court was demolished in the position against England at the end of the last Six Nations. Safe to say that even though it is within the rules, Bent’s slightly embarrassing parachute drop into the Irish squad ahead of the November internationals wouldn’t have happened in any other position.

5. Brett Wilkinson: An early version of the project player, Cape Town native Wilkinson arrived in Connacht in 2005 and has been Irish qualified since 2008. He has represented Ireland ‘A’, but his chance of taking the field for Ireland has receded with the emergence of Dave Kilcoyne and Bent’s arrival. Looked very close to getting a cap for Ireland after Court’s collapse against England but missed out over the summer when hampered by injury. At 28, he is arguably not yet in his prime.

Twitter: @brendcole

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