The new IRFU NIE Rules and what they mean

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

The rules are aimed at striking a balance between provincial success and benefiting the national team, which is very much at the top of the Irish rugby pyramid.  The IRFU want two players competing in every position for the national team, with the thinking being that with a maximum of one NIE full-back (say Jared Payne playing for Ulster), there will be an Irish one at both Munster and Leinster.  NIE signings will now be position specific – so, for example, BJ Botha will essentially be branded with a giant ‘3’ on his back.

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.

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9 Comments

  1. We tweeted @irfurugby as part of their Q&A about whether project players are included in the process. The answer was a 'yes, they are', and the IRFU maintained that project players are included in the five already allowed. Therefore you could include Peter 'Wet Tissue Paper' Borlase (M) and Richardt Strauss (L) in the above, although both will be Irish qualified by the time 2013/14 rolls around (not that it will matter in Peter 'These AIL front rows scrummage pretty hard' Borlase's case). This is a bit confusing, as simple arithmetic shows that, including project players, there are six NIEs playing for each of Munster, Leinster and Ulster. Make of it what you will.

  2. Cheika might deserve a bit of the credit for Leinster being where they are today too!Good piece though and I agree that I feel a greater bond with the province. Who wouldn't though when you're almost guaranteed to go away happy from a home game (in your usual seat, sitting beside the usual guys) as opposed to paying a wodge for a single game and taking a 50-50 gamble when Ireland might misfire (again).The implicit rationale behind the new rules that the Irish team is suffering because Academy talent is being hindered from getting gametime due to NIEs in the provinces' 1st teams is a tenuous one, I think, and one which is rather belied by the hit-and-miss quality of the Irish backs' performance (all of whom are 1st choice players) in the 1st 4 matches of the 2011 6N. Also, the point about the 6N vs the HEC is a fair one. If you had to say which competition's star is rising and which is falling (and thus how future TV revenues will trend) I'd say you'd have to bet on the HEC, at least while French clubs have the financial clout to keep buying the world's best players …The IRFU risks betting the farm on the wrong horse here.

  3. Hi Paul S, thanks for your comment. I agree with you, and I really hope that the IRFU aren't doing this as a knee-jerk reaction to the provinces outperforming the national team, because there are much more pertinent reasons for that other than the NIE structures, such as the leaden back play you mention.There's been some great discussion on the topic on various message boards, and the overall tone is negative. At the risk of borrowing other people's opinions, many have rightly pointed out that simply handing gametime to, for example, young props isn't necessarily going to make them become international standard. You can't simply 'produce' scrummaging tightheads, the talent has to be there in the first place. Only allowing one NIE prop between three provinces isn't going to put us in the position of having two international standard props. I'd cite Tony Buckley as an example of a player who was afforded every chance in the world to develop his potential, but at the end of the day just wasn't good enough.

  4. We could probably have a great discussion about maybe two NIEs per position being better or maybe relaxing the definition of position, etc, but I think that probably misses the most important point here.My own sense is that the IRFU has got the balance between national and provincial completely wrong. Provinces bring joy (and plenty of heartbreak too I guess!) to their supporters week-in, week-out. The national team plays perhaps a dozen times a year. The provinces are not a means to an end, they are an end in themselves.Even if this were successful (i.e. even if this system could produce a good tight-head in a year from nothing), it will done be at the cost of provinces in the interim. The economist in me says that whatever the "exchange rate" is in the IRFU's calculation between national success and provincial success, it doesn't match those of the fans (except maybe the furthermost ring of fans, those who tune in occasionally to watch the national team).

  5. I think what will end up being the most pertinent thing here is the one contract limit for NIEs – men like Jim Williams, John Langford, Felipe Contepomi and now Isa Nacewa, Dougie Howlett and Johann Muller have moved their lives and families to work hard for Irish rugby, and for young Irish players – they are now effectively being told "Yes, you can do that, but wait until you are 34, so we can give you one contract then use your knowledge for development etc. Or alternatively, go back to Toulon after a few years."

  6. I am certain that the IRFU are using a sledge-hammer to crack a walnut. Sure, if we want better I.E. props the answer is better scrummaging coaches from grass-roots to the academies and national set-ups. If you want the Irish team backs playing like they do for the provinces, perhaps a backs coach would be in order (rather than a switch from Gaffney to Kidney).The logical solution would have been to be explicit and clear: if you wish to play in the emerald-green jersey, you must be first-choice in your position at one of the FOUR provinces. Thus I.E. players currently out-of-favour in the big three would willingly accept a move to Connacht (and Bowe comes back to this fair isle to boot, so no exceptions). Connacht benefits, as do they players. Then you petition to improve the league (and the European Cup) to allocate berths in the Celtic league based solely on league position (bottom two go to the Challenge(d) Cup)… thus you eliminate the uneven group situation in the European Cup and simultaneously make the league competitive throughout… and a strengthened Connacht would stand a great chance of bagging a spot, as would Treviso… while the lesser teams would find their level in the Challenge. Then suddenly you actually have 4 provinces in every sense, and the game growing out west- instead of Connacht being shut out to protect the coffers at Ravenhill. Suddenly a competitive Connacht in the top competition adds a potential slot for an I.Q. player who is to be considered to the national jersey. Plus the game grows out west (where it's growing most at youth level) exponentially, and BAM, rugby is the national sport and we crush all before us. New Zealand who? Were they good once? Can't remember.

  7. Completely agree about improving props and attack. Giving young props gametime is not going to be conducive to them being good. Suppose BJ Botha and Nathan White were taken out of Munster and Leinster. Munster would be starting Archer – would he necessarily be benfitting from the exposure? He was minced by Afoa on friday. Clearly, he's not ready for that sort of test yet and needs to be managed properly. As you say, he needs to be coached well to improve, not thrown in to be mauled by a bunch of French and Georgian monsters in the H-Cup.I'm not so sure about the First Choice idea. Increasingly, 'first choice' is a blurry concept. Would that mean Deccie, for example, couldn't pick O'Malley at centre for Ireland? It might be a bit too rigid. That said, the broader scope of your idea, of having four competitive provinces and sensible European qualification rules from the Pro12 I fully agree with. I don't think you'd need to overcomplicate it: a statement of intent from the IRFU that they were going to invest in Connacht and allow them scope to sign good Irish players might convince the likes of, say, Dave Kearney, Fionn Carr and Ian Nagle that they weren't going to a career graveyard.

  8. You know what… you're spot on, Signor Pallaovale. If you simply make the league honest (the Scots know this is a logical step, which is why the SRU opposed the Italian teams joining) and keep our generous allocation of 10 berths then Connacht have the very realisable goal of making it to the top European competition. Suddenly the players would see it as a sensible career choice. And on the first-choice idea- you're right on that too- too cumbersome. But I do think if we were less Irish about it (i.e. having a kind of a rule that sort of applies but doesn't sometimes wink wink) and just took the Kiwi route that some neighbours are not adopting to stave off a French exodus: if you want to play for Ireland you play in Ireland. Then common sense would have a player with that ambition who was perhaps 2nd or 3rd choice at the big three really pondering starting all the big games for the westerners. It's ingenious, and so bloody simple, plus in effect it would achieve what the IRFU are attempting with this cack-handed N.I.E. thing. In general you'd have two, three or even four I.E. players competing for the jersey that suddenly a Fijian here and a Saffer there don't cause you much worry- just class players keeping the rugby punter happy! Then we invest in coaching and start producing props and locks and Robert's your mother's brother. Right… all I need is a green biro to compose a mad letter to the Irish Times.

  9. Simon Danielli won't be missed – there's an understatement. His inclusion in the Scotland squad gives the lie to the great Scottish resurrection.

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