The Mystery of the IRFU Succession Rules

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.

It’s all Jamie Hagan’s Fault for Moving to Leinster

Amid the fallout from Ireland’s Twickenham debacle, one regular lament in the meeja is Jamie Hagan’s move to Connacht.  It goes thus: Ireland could have had another tighthead prop to call on had Jamie Hagan stayed with Connacht this year, instead of moving back to his home province, Leinster.

Hagan was a highly durable near-constant in the Connacht front-row (50 appearances in two seasons), and has found himself marginalised at Leinster, where he has to contend not only with Mike Ross, but also Kiwi prop Nathan White.  Had he stayed at Connacht , he would have had the pleasure of going up against Toulouse, Glaws and Quins props and earning his corn as a Heineken Cup level scrummager, miraculously emerging unscathed from those encounters, instead of togging out for Leinster A in the British & Irish Cup.

The reality of course, is totally different, on any number of counts.  Let us expel a number of myths. 
Jamie Hagan has made a bad career choice.  No he hasn’t.  He has come to Leinster to work with Greg Feek and Mike Ross, the men responsible for turning Leinster’s scrum from a wet blanket that Toulouse pushed around in the 2010 HEC semi-final to something altogether more solid, and occasionally destructive.  The hope is that he will emerge from this a better technical scrummager and a player Leinster can trust to start in high-stakes games.  With all due respect to Connacht’s coaching ticket, we are given to believe it does not feature someone of Feek’s calibre on the books.  His chances of improving to the level required in a technical position are far greater at Leinster.
Leinster are stockpiling, and Hagan is languishing in the reserves.  Leinster have a plan for Jamie Hagan – he is not simply languishing in the A team. They are working with him to improve his scrummaging and fitness.  Those with short memories would do well to recall that Mike Ross barely featured in his first season at Leinster – he spent the year in the gym, where Michael Cheika demanded he get fit enough to get around the paddock.  The following season the Mike Ross we know and love today emerged.
Jamie Hagan has had very little gametime with Leinster.  Another story that doesn’t hold up.  Of Leinster’s three foremost tighthead props, the playing time this season is as follows:
  • Jamie Hagan – 9 starts, 7 sub appearances, 634 minutes
  • Mike Ross – 9 starts, 2 sub appearances, 660 minutes
  • Nathan White – 6 starts, 11 sub appearances, 561 minutes
Hardly banished to the sidelines.  One of those starts was in the Heineken Cup, in the final pool match against Montpellier.  It looked, to us anyway, like a signal that Hagan was firmly in Leinster’s plans, and he did well to hold his own against Leleimalefaga, one of Europe’s more gargantuan looseheads.
Had Jamie stayed at Connacht the Twickers debacle wouldn’t have happened.  Hardly.  If Jamie Hagan had six HEC starts to his name with Connacht, and 13 more in the Pro12, he would still not have made the matchday squad for Ireland v England.  The current 22-man squad rule, daft as it is, means Tom Court would still have made the bench, because he can, in theory, scrummage on both sides. Its also worth noting that being shunted around the Sportsground by Joe Marler and Jean-Baptiste Poux is hardly something that benefits one career – ask Court about Alex Corbisiero and see what he says.
In fact, he might not have made the training squad – after all, he never did before.  Even when he was winning positive reviews at Connacht, Irish management never gave him much encouragement.  He has a grand total of two Ireland A caps, both earned as a replacement in 2011 – Declan Fitzpatrick and Tony Buckley the starters at 3 in the two games.
It’s easier to stand out in an ordinary side like Connacht.  Everyone wants to see the positive in you when you play in a wholehearted, but usually losing team.  If the scrum sinks three times in a match but you make three big carries, chances are people will remember the carries.  At Leinster, teams come to the RDS knowing their opponent has fewer weaknesses.  If they sense one, they will look to extract everything out of it.  The scrum was identified as such on Friday night by the Ospreys, who milked it, and won a tight match.  Hagan was among those culpable.  There’s still work to be done – plenty of it behind the scenes with Greg Feek.