Yesterday, the IRFU released the new set of rules governing the provincial teams’ recruitment of Non-Irish Eligible (NIE) players, which will come into play in the 2013/14 season. The 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 the 2013/14 season and onwards, 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.
– Connacht are external to this process as it has recently commenced a new programme of structural and performance development agreed with the IRFU
Let’s face it, this is all about the front row. The IRFU is trying to remove the current situation where young Irish props are confined to the British & Irish Cup while Wian du Preez and Nathan White are togging out in the Heineken Cup. A quick glance through the list of 16 NIE players currently plying their trade in Ireland shows where the overlap is:
1 Wian du Preez (M), Heinke can der Merwe (L)
3 John Afoa (U), Nathan White (L) and BJ Botha (M)
4 Steven Sykes (L)
5 Johann Muller (U)
8 Padrie Wannenberg (U)
9 Ruan Pienaar (U)
10 Matt Berquist (L)
11 Simon Danielli (U)
12 Lifiemi Mafi (M)
13 Will Chambers (M)
14 Dougie Howlett (M)
15 Isa Nacewa (L), Jared Payne (U)
Given that Simon Danielli won’t be missed too greatly and Dougie will hardly be around in 2014, while Isa Nacewa can easily be classified as a 14, the only significant overlap is in the front row. With just one loosehead slot, and one tighthead going between the two provinces, there is going to be one serious bunfight to get those prized slots. Each of Munster and Ulster currently have imported world class technicians in those positions, but succession plans will need to kick off in earnest right away. One of the two is going to end up severely weakened – but which? And who decides? And how? Would Munster be four from four in the HEC without BJ Botha? Its not likely. Meanwhile, anyone holding shares in Irish tighthead Mike Ross plc just saw their investment double in value, although even he could be pushing over the hill by 2014.
However, the crucial detail, to us anyway, is that once an NIE player’s contract is up, he must be on his merry way – and you cannot replace him with another NIE player in the same position. Essenatially, the IRFU is saying ‘You can sign an NIE, but only for a couple of years while he keeps the shirt warm for an Irish player.’ So, if Ruan Pienaar’s contract were to expire, he would be thanked for his time and sent packing, and Paul Marshall would presumably be handed the starting jersey (or Ulster could recruit another Irish player).
Speaking of Pienaar, when Ulster signed him, they were at pains to point out that he was being signed as a scrum-half. At the time it looked like a case of not hurting iHumph’s feelings, but perhaps Ulster saw this in the pipeline. A bit too conspiratorial? Maybe.
We think the one-contract-and-out element is too harsh on the provinces, and could make life needlessly difficult for them. To cite another example, Munster have not produced any centres of note in recent times. Now, once Mafi’s contract expires, they will be forced to play an Irishman there, though none may meet the standard. Perhaps the end result will be greater movement between the provinces, with someone like Nevin Spence guaranteed game time in that position for Munster. Similarly, Leinster might see this as the catalyst to go in pursuit of Ian Nagle, who is buried not beneath NIEs, but a pile of Irish locks at Munster, while the Leinster second row well is pretty dry.
This rule will also make it more difficult for the provinces to recruit high quality NIEs. Players will know they are precluded from staying for longer than their first contract allows. Howlett, Contepomi and Nacewa all went on not only to become legends in their provinces, but brought up their families here. Would you bring your family somewhere you know will be no more than a two-three year stop-off? Unlikely.
The IRFU are broadly correct to tighten the rules on NIEs at this point. The argument that the likes of Jim Williams and John Langford taught the Munster players so much is true, but it’s no longer relevant. Professionalism is now entrenched in Irish rugby, and the last players with connections to the amateur era are now retired. We don’t need a bunch of Aussies explaining that going out on the sauce when you’re injured isn’t a great idea any more, valuable though it was in the past. The Irish senior players are now in a position to pass on this advice. But as the IRFU say, it’s all about balance, and they would want to be mindful they don’t overly restrict the provinces.
There is a danger that this is stemming from the provinces having achieved so much in the last few years, and the IRFU seeking to transfer this success to the national team by committee. We would be quick to point out that Leinster’s success is down to the outstanding coaching and squad management of Joe Schmidt, and that the same is available to the national team with more progressive coaching, gameplan and selection, rather than an overhaul of structures.
Ultimately, it is the provinces, rather than the national team, that have driven so much of the growth in the game in the last decade. The IRFU point out that the Irish national team is still the main revenue driver, and subsidises the provinces, but this reveals only half of the picture. Would the desire to watch the national team be so strong without the provincial successes we’ve enjoyed? Increasingly, the Heineken Cup is the more enjoyable, exciting and glamorous tournament than the Six Nations. The fans feel a bond with their provincial side, which isn’t quite there at national level, where the players tend to be removed from their communities. It’s a distinct possibility that the IRFU could be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.