The Irish Rugby Football Union has announced significant changes to the way it will manage the contracts of non-Irish qualified players from 2013.
The changes are being made in a bid to ensure that there are enough players of the required standard available to play at Test level for Ireland.
The Union has announced four specific policy changes – described as "refinements" - which will come into effect for the 2013/14 season.
The four changes are as follows:
- One non-Irish eligible (NIE) player only in each of the 15 field positions across the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster e.g. one foreign player allowed across all three teams per position.
- For any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad.
- All future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland.
- All future provincial non-Irish eligible player contracts will be position specific.
The changes will force the provinces to reshape their squads between now and the next Rugby World Cup, which will take place in England in 2015.
All four provinces have significant numbers of non-Irish qualified players in their ranks, particularly in the propping positions.
Recruitment from abroad will in future likely to be based even more on covering specific deficits and the provinces will be forced to plan to have Irish players ready to succeed non-Irish qualified players.
The Union may face a backlash from supporters concerned that their provinces will struggle to compete, particularly against well funded French teams in the Heineken Cup.
The French and English clubs operate under a salary cap, though the French ceiling of around €10m is around double that of their English counterparts. The four Welsh regions have a cap of £3.5m (€4.2m) from the beginning of next year.
Players at all four Irish provinces are centrally contracted, which gives the IRFU control of the wage bill.
Explaining the decision, an IRFU statement said: "The Ireland team remains the financial engine that supports each of the four provincial teams and so it is a critical objective for Irish rugby that the Ireland team remains competitive in the long term by being populated by suitably experienced Irish qualified players.
"The opportunity to build this experience is primarily through time on the field in top level competitions."
The statement added that changes are intended to give more opportunities to players who progress through the Academy system.
The overall goal of the new policies is to have a minimum of two Irish qualified players per position playing as first choice selections in the Heineken Cup and RaboDirect Pro12.
The statement added: "The refinement in the contract policies will be operated in such a manner as to enable the professional teams to enjoy continuing success at both national and provincial levels."
Commenting on the changes, IRFU Chief Executive Phillip Browne said: "The challenges for the IRFU and the provincial teams are to continue to try to be successful at all levels, but balance this by recognising the model under which Irish rugby has produced that success over the last 12 years."
"The provincial teams have contributed hugely to the achievements of the Ireland team, but it is important to remember that the Ireland team is the marquee competitive outlet for the game in Ireland and also the financial mechanism that funds rugby at all levels."
"On this basis, it is essential that the Ireland team is given every opportunity to remain competitive at international level and to do that, it requires Irish qualified players to gain continuous experience at club and provincial level.”
"Equally, non Irish qualified players have delivered much value and support to the success of the provincial teams and development of Irish players over the last number of years. The intention is that this will continue, but not to the detriment of the progress of Irish qualified players in key positions.
"The refinements continue to allow the provinces to sign overseas players who will not alone play for the Province but critically allow young Irish players to learn from these players and put this knowledge into practice by taking over the position once that player's contract is completed.
"The aspirations for the IRFU are that in any single year, we would want to win the RBS Six Nations Championship, but also have our provincial teams winning the Heineken Cup and the RaboDirect Pro12.
"The key is finding the balance to allow this to happen, but not disadvantage one over the other and always remembering that a successful Ireland team is the catalyst for success at all levels below that.
"This new strategy is essential to put Irish Rugby in the best position to reach that."