Dear Bryan, fancy free entry into Coppers any night you want?

Leinster’s signing of Zane Kirchner hasn’t exactly inspired the troops – a fan base used to foreign backs like Pippo Contepomi and Isa Nacewa (both Leinster legends) just doesn’t like what they see in Kirchner. There was a desire for a gassy specialist wing to come in – Leinster have a lot of players who can play on the wing, but very few out-and-out wingers. A pre-injury Drew Mitchell would have been ideal, for example.

Kirchner is a full-back who has played in the 3/4 line – he has accumulated 24 caps for the Springboks but is primarily known for his Sideshow haircut and his propensity for occasional clangers. He has a massive boot and is a decent counter-attacker, but doesn’t exactly know where the whitewash is – he has 3 tries in 22 starts vs 47 in 81 for Bryan Habana, 14 in 41 for JP Pietersen and 5 in 13 for Gio Aplon. It’s safe to say Leinster fans are underwhelmed, but could they really have done any better?

With it being exactly mid-RWC cycle, you aren’t going to get All Black or Wallaby contenders going north, as they won’t get picked for the national side. The Boks are less shy about picking overseas-based players, so your market is essentially South Africa and Europe (acknowledging most Argentinian / Pacific Islander pros ply their trade in Europe).

Plus there are some differences between the market now, and the market when the provinces were picking up the likes of Dr Phil, Isa, Dougie Howlett, Jean de Villiers, Ruan Pienaar, BJ Botha, John Afoa and Rocky Elsom. The major one being the financial power of the French clubs vis-a-vis the poor mouth Irish.  Indeed, even the far-flung Japanese league has enough financial muscle behind it to lure big names.  And while the ‘Player Succession Rules’ appear to be trapped in a terminal limbo, we can at least infer that the IRFU is less enthused than ever about recruiting expensive overseas layers.  Digby Ioane has just effectively come on the market, but even if Leinster moved heaven and earth to try and sign him, there is no way they could afford him.  The French or Japanese would simply outbid for him; he can effectively name his price as one of the best wingers in the world.

If Leinster are in the market for, say, a world class outside back from South Africa, they are competing against Toulon and Racing Metro. So it goes like this:

  • Top Class: Bryan Habana, Digby Ioane. Forget about it, Toulon will outbid you. And if they don’t, there are half a dozen other French or Japanese clubs who will
  • International Class: JP Pietersen. If no French clubs are interested, you have a chance, but how likely is that? Pietersen is in his prime, has bags of experience and demands Springbok selection when fit. If there are interested French clubs you are struggling from day one
  • Super Rugby Class: Zane Kirchner. Kirchner is mostly in the Bok team these days and has never fully convinced at the highest level. If the best French clubs, those who compete in the HEC, aren’t too bothered you have a shot

So Leinster’s universe was basically South Africans who don’t own a Springbok shirt – not ideal.

Ulster will face a similar problem replacing John Afoa – what prop will turn down a French team to play Pro12 rugby when you can have a situation where you can get more money for playing 50 minute games in a top-class league? Take Zurib Kubriashvili for example, out of favour this season and leaving Toulon in the summer – leaving aside the umbilical link between Georgian props and the Top14, if he leaves Toulon, as it reported, would Ulster even be at the table when it comes to serious offers? They would be outbid by any interested French club, and it’s hard to sell dreary Belfast as an alternate to the South of France.  Rumour has it he’ll end up at Wasps, another club with some newfound financial clout behind them.

Irish provinces have had a decade of dining at the top table when it comes to world class talent, but that era is ending – Kirchner is a good player and everything, but let’s say Leinster rolled up the money and sent it in a big bag to Craig Gilroy (not currently a starter for Ulster when everyone is fit), would the fans be any less happy? Would Leinster be any worse off? And would it be worse for Irish rugby in the round? Clearly Ulster lose out, but they have a few wings and get some recompense. Just saying like.

[Disclaimer: this piece was written by Egg the Ulsterman]

 

Stealing our jobs

The days might have gone when Irish rugby folk looked on in wide-eyes amazement when Aussies came over to tell them it wasn’t the best idea to booze when recovering from injury, but we still are in thrall to the glamourous tanned lads who, in many ways, tell the story of Irish professional rugby as well as any Irish players. John Langford leading the troops through moats of molten lava in the south of France, Stanley Wright barbecuing Fido before the pound got him, and Clinton Shifcofske fumbling Garryowens on a sodden Belfast night are all part of Irish rugby lore, and Isa, Dougie and Ruan have picked up the baton, albeit in a rather more effective fashion.

In the context of the IRFU coming over all Tea Party about immigrants, we though it would be a good time to review the provinces’ cohort of evil women-stealing job-doing welfare-scrounging diversity-bringing native-educating mind-expanding Johnny Foreigners plying their nefarious trade in green Erin.

Recall for this season Ulster, Munster and Leinster are allowed four NIQs (players who can’t play for Ireland) and one “Project Player” (someone who will be eligible for Irish selection after a period of time), and Connacht are allowed “something else” – the technical term for us not actually knowing the formal arrangement.

Munster

NIQs: BJ Botha (tighthead prop), Wian du Preez (loosehead prop), Casey Laulala (centre), Doug Howlett (ligind winger). Project player: CJ Stander (flanker)

After years of grim recruitment abroad (Nick Williams, Sam Tuitupou, Will Chambers et al), Munster have probably surprised even themselves by ending up with a very useful set of foreigners. BJ came down from Ulster last year, reputedly as the best-paid NIQ in the country, and locked the Munster scrum in a way it hadn’t been in years – along with POC, Rog and Keith Earls, he is one of Munster’s irreplacables. On the other side of the scrum Wian du Preez quietly does the business, and is on a longer contract than Botha, so might be around for a while, as he is the only non-Irish loosehead starting for a province. Not much needs to be said about Doug Howlett – if he can teach Simon Zebo 10% of his defensive positioning knowledge, the Corkman is in for a long career.

Casey Laulala is a more curious case – he is exclusively a 13, which is of course the position that Munster’s best back, Irishman Keet Earls, wants to play from now on. It’s unlikely they brought Laulala, a very useful player, in to cover the games when Deccie has Earls wrapped in cotton wool, so you’d imagine someone will play out of position … let’s hope it ain’t Earls. CJ Stander signed last week, and looks a really good fit – a former U-20 Springbok captain, his strength is his ball carrying, a facet of the game in which Munster were notably deficient last season. The Bulls are unhappy to see him go, but we would eat every one of our hats if ever pulled on an Irish jersey – a man who is being lined up for a long Bok career does not walk away for the prospect of playing with Niall Ronan and James Cawlin – he’ll be back on the highveldt in time for RWC15.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 4/5 – a good tighthead prop (the best-paid import in Ireland), the All Blacks all time leading try scorer and a Springbok underage star? Clearly some prominent local celebrity is funding this cadre. Our money is on Pat Shortt.

Ulster

NIQs: John Afoa (tighthead prop), Johann Muller (second row), Ruan Pienaar (scrum half), Not Nick Williams (tackle bag holder). Project Player: Jared Payne (full back)

Ulster’s cohort of fancy Springboks was the envy of certain prominent parochial journalists last year, and with good reason – Ruan Pienaar was the stand-out scrum-half in Europe, Pedrie Wannenburg wowed the galleries with his sumptuous offloads, Stefan Terblanche wellied the ball into orbit and Johann Muller led the team with granite certainty from the second row. Wannenbosh and Terreblanche have moved on, but the others remain. Pienaar is genuinely one of the rugby world’s superstars, and has played for his country in 5 different positions – his game management from the base of the scrum is matched only by Dmitri Yachvili and Will Genia, and his goal-kicking is lethal and reliable. Muller is one of Ulster’s pack leaders, and sometime forwards coach – the hope is he continues to have huge influence on the younger guys coming through – the turnaround in Dan Tuohy from Gloucester reserve to dynamic international lock is at least partly attributable to Muller’s excellence.

John Afoa, despite a hard time in the scrums in the HEC final (kudos to DJ Church), is a destructive and aggressive prop – at times he seems to be everywhere around the park. He’s come into the spotlight recently as the evil genius who stunts Deccie Fitzpatrick’s development, but he will remain first choice at Ulster next year. Which is something Nick Williams will assuredly not be. The ineffective splinter gatherer, formerly of Munster and Aironi, is a laughably bad signing – he can only play 8 and will be behind the returning Roger Wilson (an underrated player and great bit of recruitment). Let us hope he wasn’t Anscombe’s call, because, if he was, its a pretty inauspicious beginning.

Jared Payne has switched from injured NIQ to project player now that Robbie Diack is Irish. He played only 3 times last season then crocked himself – he had a reputation as a daring counter-attacker in Auckland, and that’s something Ulster missed last year – Craig Gilroy apart, the outside backs were rather bosh-tastic.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 3.5/5 Unless Caroline Wozniacki has spent all of Rory’s fortune, there is no good reason he would fund the signing of Nick Williams – Humph has to take the blame for that one

Leinster

NIQs: Isa Nacewa (winger), Heinke van der Merwe (loosehead prop), Quinn Roux (second row), TBA. Project player: Richardt Strauss (hooker)

Isa Nacewa is mentioned in the same breath as Jim Williams and Dr Phil as the most influential foreigner to grace Irish soil, and rightly so – his outlook and professionalism have coloured Leinster’s approach under Joe Schmidt and his awareness of space is a thing of beauty; the try against Leicester in last years’ HEC quarter-final was one of the best we have seen in person. The rest of Leinster’s cohort are in the engine room – Heinke VDM comes on for DJ Church when he gets tired in big games, and mans the Pro12 shift with power and efficiency – he’s basically a prototype Afrikaner prop who can scrummage well and hit rucks hard. Beside him, little Richard Strauss is finalising the words to Ireland’s Call – he’s  qualified in the autumn and will offer some good hands and the support lines of a former flanker.

Leinster had two vacancies following the departures of Nathan White and Mat Berquist, and the first signing is underwhelming to say the least. While Quinn Roux has talent (he was ahead of Eben Etzebeth in the Stormers depth chart before getting injured this year), but it’s an odd signing – it seems he is over here on a gap year and no more – it stinks of penny-pinching, and Leinster are kicking the second row can further down the road – Leo Cullen is no longer top level, and Devin Toner isn’t quite there – this line is a flashing red light for next season. Let’s hope he doesn’t look upon the gap year as an excuse to head to Coppers on a Monday night. We have no insider knowledge of who the TBA is likely to be (or if there will be one), but if the last two guys the IRFU have shelled out for (Williams and Roux) are any guide, a cheap bosher will be making half-time oranges in D4 next year.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 2/5 Bono it ain’t.  The mystery celeb who is funding Leinster’s expansion has been credit-crunched (Johnny Ronan?) – Quinn Roux is a mystifying signing, and the AN Other at this stage of the year is not a good sign

Connacht

NIQs: Ettienne Reynecke (hooker), Rodney Ah You (tighthead prop), George Naoupu (number 8), Dan Parks (outhalf), Fetu’u Vainikolo (bosher). Project Player: Nathan White (tighthead prop), Danie Poolman (winger)

There seems to be a bit more leeway given to imports in the west – Connacht have 5 NIQs and 2 project players. The standout member is former Scotland stand-off Dan Parks – his international career may have ended in ignominy, but he made the most of his opportunities, and was an intelligent and committed international player, who was outstanding in the 2010 Six Nations. Parks will bring poise and experience to a squad thin on guys who have played at the highest level – he will kick goals and will look excellent in green. It could be a precursor of a move into coaching, and this would be Connacht’s gain – he strikes us a classic progressive Aussie coach – Matt Williams with a monster boot if you like.

The (evil) tighthead prop Nathan White has come in from Leinster. He gained positive reviews from his time in D4 but if he ever starts ahead of Ronan Loughney, Deccie will blame him for Ireland’s woes. Rodney Ah You is another one who can be blamed for the Twickers debacle, given he wears 3. The rest of the squad is composed largely of South Sea boshers, and it’s hard to see how this benefits Connacht, or Ireland – its basically dead money that could be invested in young Irish lads.

Rory McIlroy Rating: 1.5/5 Dan Parks aside, the local boy who made it big worldwide (member of Westlife?) is doing this on the cheap – either that or he has a fetish for the bosh – Ooooooooooooooooooooohh!!