Around a year ago, the IRFU announced its ‘succession rules’, whereby it would restrict non-Irish qualified players to one per field position across the provinces, and operate on a ‘one-contract-and-out’ basis. The idea was to ensure at least two Irish-eligible players were playing first team rugby in each position across the three major provinces. They were announced to general bafflement among a public that has become deeply loyal to their province of choice. The IRFU hosted a twitter Q&A session, where they gave infuriatingly vague replies to fans who were wondering what on earth was going on, but failed to generate any goodwill or provide satisfactory responses. It was one of the biggest PR gaffs the union has made in recent memory, up there with their ticket pricing policy for the November 2010 internationals.
Curiously – or maybe not so curiously – since the initial furore which greeted announcement, we’ve had radio silence on the issue. Isa Nacewa was allowed to sign a one-year extension, apparently at odds with the rules; keeping him in Leinster until 2014, a year after the rules are apparently meant to come in. And today, Ulster announced Johann Muller was staying until the end of next season.
In the case of Nacewa and, especially, Muller, both are keeping young Irish players out of the team, seemingly at odds with the rules – both might be the highest-profile NIQs in their position, but we simply don’t know if that was a criterion in their contract offer.
Confused? You’re not the only one.
The quietude around the rules has led people to ask: are they still going ahead? We’re in the dark as much as anyone else over this. It would be no surprise if they were quietly folded away and put to bed without any fanfare or announcement. Another possibility is that the IRFU maintains they’re going ahead, with vigorous affirmations of the importance of adherence, but only enforces them selectively – that is to say, in actuality they don’t enforce them at all, but pretend they do in order to save face.
It looks like this will come to a real head quite soon, as Munster and Ulster’s NIQ tighthead props are making noises about leaving. Tighthead prop was really the only position the rules were brought in to cater for, because as everyone knows, Mike Ross is the only Irish-qualified prop starting important games for his province, and it’s the only position where Ireland are so dependent on one player.
At Munster, BJ Botha is rumoured to be moving to Toulon, where he has been offered a two-year contract, while Ulster’s John Afoa has mentioned in a recent interview that he plans to return to New Zealand at the end of his contract, which expires in the summer of 2014.
Under the succession rules, Munster would be precluded from recruiting a foreign tighthead for next season, since NIQ players must be replaced by Irish eligible players once their contract has lapsed. Ulster, similarly, would not be allowed to recruit an NIQ player the following season, once John Afoa departs. But does anyone really believe the IRFU will hamper the provinces so severely? It strikes us as unlikely.
The foremost Irish tightheads at Munster and Ulster are Stephen Archer and Declan Fitzpatrick. Neither would be fit for the purpose of mounting a challenge for the Heineken Cup. Fitzpatrick can lock a scrum, but is rarely match-fit, while Archer struggles to cope with even moderately technical opponents in the set-piece. If both provinces are to have aspirations of beating the better French or English sides, some recruitment will be required.
The only Irish-eligible tighthead who looks a remotely plausible signing is Worcester’s Belfast-born John Andress. Ploughing away in the Worcester front row may not sound like the stuff of greatness, but the Aviva Premiership is a set-piece-heavy league, packed with hardy scrummagers (Andress’ regular opponents in the scrum would include the likes of Soane Tongauiha, Alex Corbisiero, Marcos Ayerza and Joe Marler – not exactly wallflowers).
Andress has had something of a journeyman career so far, but has amassed plenty of gametime since he moved to England. He made 44 appearances in the Championship for Exeter Chiefs, before moving up a level to the Premiership with Harlequins in 2009. He made 30 starts for Harlequins over two seasons before returning to the Chiefs, but found his path to the first team blocked on returning. He’s started 10 games and made eight further appearances from the bench for Worcester this season. He might find his opportunities slightly more limited in the rest of the season, with Euan Murray having pitched up at Sixways. That he has never been deemed essential by some fairly mediocre clubs is a mark against him, but his CV is several notches up from that of Archer or Fitzpatrick.
His is a solid body of work, and his career path looks suspiciously similar to that of Mike Ross. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be as good as Mike Ross, but at 29, he should be coming into his prime as a scrummager. If the IRFU do decide to persist with their ill-conceived succession rules, he can expect his value to increase sharply.
But even if Andress is the answer – and there’s no guarantee he would be – there’s only one of him, and two provinces for whom the issue of recruitment is pressing. If the IRFU is going to go ahead with its ill-advised move, and enact it to the letter, it is going to have to choose between Munster and Ulster and seriously weaken one of them.
Prop recruitment in general has been a mixed bag among the provinces in recent years. Botha has delivered good value for both Ulster and Munster over five highly productive seasons, while Afoa has been consistently outstanding for Ulster. Nathan White, as a stop-gap for Leinster and now at Connacht, is another success story. But then there are the Clint Newlands, Peter Borlases and latterly, Michael Bents, whose careers in Ireland have been stillborn.
Even if Ulster and Munster are given the licence to recruit, there are no guarantees of quality, and competition for the best will be fierce from the Top 14 in particular, where clubs think nothing of having six first-rate props on their books, and rotating them over the season – the best props coming from the Southern Hemisphere will get hoovered up by the French clubs, as will the French ones (obviously) and the Georgians. The English ones aren’t going to come to Ireland. So, essentially, to replace Afoa and Botha with NIQ props will not only break the IRFU’s own rules, but be hugely expensive into the bargain, as we will be competing with Toulon, Clermont and Racing Metro.