IRFU legislation leaves Ulster & Leinster’s futures uncertain

Unless you took a three-day trip to Mars last Friday evening, you will have noticed that Ulster and Leinster combined to paint this continent green over the weekend. By resisting the considerable challenges of Edinburgh and Clermont Auvergne, these two Irish provinces have now scheduled an enthralling party at Twickenham in two and a half week’s time, where a capacity crowd of 80,000 will witness a tumultuous tussle to decide the fate of the Heineken Cup.

Undoubtedly, both sides are worthy finalists. Leinster’s phenomenal try-line defence in Bordeaux on Sunday was an apt summation of their campaign – they have been irresistible. As defending champions, chasing a third crown in four seasons, the Dubliners were just meant to win. The forwards, driven by Cian Healy and Leo Cullen, were ferocious. Brian O’Driscoll is back to his talismanic best, defying creaking bones to deliver dexterity and physicality in equal measure. At full-back, Rob Kearney is truly peerless.

Ulster will prove worthy opponents. The competition’s perennial also-rans have finally, muscularly exorcised the spectre of 1999 – their only previous tournament victory – and, if only on the basis of their awesome 41-7 dismantling of Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill back in January, deserve a bite at glory. Stephen Ferris, the mountainous, marauding blindside, has personified the wholehearted passion of this fantastic club throughout and will lead the charge.

However, though May 19 will see a Guinness-fuelled extravaganza at HQ, filled with singing, dancing and – somewhere in the middle – fiercely-fought rugby, there is an ominously dark cloud spreading West of the Irish Sea. Despite the country’s justifiable pride in their monopoly on the final, there is also a subverted sense of trepidation. Thanks to the IRFU’s December proposal to restrict foreign squad members, things may never be the same again.

From the 2013-4 season, a limit of 15 overseas players – one per position – will be shared between Leinster, Munster and Ulster (Connacht have a separate agreement in place) with no province able to retain more than five. The bare facts of the policy, while heavy-handed, are simple. The connotations are not.

For a start, the IRFU has manufactured an awkward amount of arbitration for itself. Contract scrambling is sure to create chaos next season and uneasy negotiations between this trio of rugby giants will be necessary. Because Ruan Pieenar has committed to his future to Ravenhill until June 2014, for example, neither Leinster nor Munster can sign a scrum-half from abroad. If long-term injuries to any of their frontline nines ensue, the situation could get messy.

Indeed, for both pros and cons of this change, Ulster are a good model to explore. Their Springbok spine – from Stefan Terblanche at full-back, through Pienaar to Johaan Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg up front – has been extremely influential. So influential, in fact, that they were responsible for all 22 points that clinched Saturday’s win over Edinburgh.

Crucially though, thanks to John Afoa’s suspension, every member of the starting XV apart from that quartet was home-grown. Such a statistic compares favourably against the fact that Saracens – the last English club in the Heineken Cup draw – began their loss to Clermont with an American, a Welshman and three South Africans in tow (as well as adopted ‘Englishmen’ Matt Stevens, Mouritz Botha and Brad Barritt). In short, the Belfast boys are creating something sustainable, where seasoned internationals are showing local heroes the way, guiding them in crunch clashes. For Ulster, the implementation of the new guidelines would not, I believe, change too much. Not everyone is convinced, of course.

Speaking to the Irish Independent this week, Shane Horgan did not perch anywhere near a fence. He called the scheme “ridiculous,” “unworkable” and, most damningly, “a diktat,” before urging Leinster, his former club, to keep hold of fabulous Fijian utility back Isa Nacewa. Having won 69 caps over a nine-year international career, Horgan’s opinion holds considerable sway. Then again, he might be missing the key point.

The IRFU’s priority should, quite obviously, be the success of Ireland as a team, with an unapologetic emphasis on results. For one reason or another, that has not been achieved of late. An ignominious exit to Wales at the quarter-final stage of the World Cup last autumn has now been compounded by an average Six Nations and something has to give. Although the sight of Declan Kidney’s props being cleaved in twain by Dan Cole and friends at a rainy Twickenham in March was nothing to do with the fact that Munster regularly employ Wian du Preez and BJ Botha in the front-row, thrusting young natives into the limelight, eventually, will bolster the men in green.

A thought to finish. Horgan, along with O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Paul O’Connell, Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara and a few more, was a key cog in Ireland’s golden generation. In European club rugby, these players have delivered – on May 19, either Leinster or Ulster will become the fifth Irish winner of the Heineken Cup since 2006. However, the international return is far bleaker. In the same period, a solitary Grand Slam in 2009 stands up against stumbling Six Nations campaigns and two very forgettable attempts to capture the Webb Ellis trophy.

The IRFU will be hounded if Heineken Cup triumphs dry up in the future, but many will forgive and forget if Ireland regularly find their way to silverware. In any case, for the next two and a half weeks at least, we should bask in the achievement of Ulster and Leinster. For them, there is no time like the present.

by Charlie Morgan

11 thoughts on “IRFU legislation leaves Ulster & Leinster’s futures uncertain

  1. It’s probably quite apt that the top ‘you might like’ article suggested at the bottom of this page is ‘April fool’. I hadn’t heard of this new Irish policy and I’ve got to say, I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t cause massive friction between the 3 regions. Negotiating over contracts that expire at different times, with different regions requiring back-up in different positions as injuries crop up through the season, is going to get very complicated.

    I can see where the IRFU are trying to get to with this policy, but is it the correct way to achieve their goal? I’m not at all sure.

    Could it lead to an NFL-type draft system where players are ‘traded’ between regions on a more regular basis?

  2. I think the requirement of at least 2 Irishmen starting in every position across the top provinces each week is sensible. Although the implementation certainly throws up a lot of questions I can’t think of a less worse option. Restricting total numbers of imports is fine if you have 14 clubs, but I don’t think the broad brush treatment works when you are looking at 3.

    Although the 6N did expose lack of tighthead resources the bottom line is Ireland have been a far better team on paper than they have on the pitch of late. IRFU should be looking a little closer to home to find root cause of that in my opinion.

  3. its not all bad over the years leinster has become less dependent on the imports. rocky and isa were major for us so was stan wright and the doctor/magician! but we are slowly getting away from it! with 3 foreign players starting and one 3 months away from residency. the big problem is prop next season leinster will have one foreign prop, and hes a back up. munster an ulster have two tighthead starters and fitzpatrick showed in the semi hes got steady shoulders on him know he was injured for 5 months think it would be better if the front row players were limited to a certan number of matches like the internationals are this would give the young guns time in pro twelve to develop. no kid wants to learn by getting their asses handed to them like healy in toulousse 2010! for next season leinster will have 3 foreigners on the books.

    1. That’s a good idea, target numbers of starts for Irish players in all positions maybe a suitable alternative, though I don’t think the kids playing Pro 12 and the men H Cup would be a good split. Pro 12 already starting to suffer as Welsh regions are becoming nurseries.

  4. I always think that if the answer to something is more regulation, then you’re probably asking the wrong question

    As you point out, despite the foreign talent, there are lots of local youngsters coming through and to my mind, playing and training with players like Nacewa or Pieenar is only going to broaden their skill base and abilities.

    Slightly disingenous to use Sarries as an example given their foreign contingent. It seems to be that the premiership is relying far less on imports than it used to

  5. My main concern is that the IRFU have came up with the solution to the wrong problem by assuming foreign players are the cause of the national teams disappointments.

    This weekend Leinster and Ulster started with 13 and 11 Irish players each. Munster started with 12 in their Q/F. That’s a tiny fraction of each team being non-eligible and realistically the majority of those players aren’t damaging the national team in anyway. Wannenburg, Muller, Pienaar, Terblanche, Nacewa and Thorne all play positions that Ireland are well stocked at anyway.

    Ireland have had player problems in only two areas, front row and centre, yet both HC finalists won this week with entirely Irish front row and centre pairings. So the IRFU’s suggestion that forcing teams to go all Irish is going to solve all our problems is nonsense.

    The real problem is that we pick from just three teams. That means even if they are all Irish we have just three starting tight heads. On the law of averages at least one of those is going to be injured at any given time and at least one of them is simply not going to be international standard. Small nations with small playing populations are just going to have some days when you run out of international standard players at a position.

    The only solution is to do the opposite of what the IRFU are suggesting. Instead of bringing Irish players home to sit on the bench behind another Irish player more players need to be encouraged/forced to seek out starting roles at Connaucht or English/French clubs.

  6. Think the new rules have certain merit, but the irfu need to be flexible. My concern with the thrust of reports of late if it reflects official thinking that for national performance to flourish the province performance need to suffer. think this is a very dangerous thinking and flawed. Looking to the immediate history our provinces produced the golden generation and the national team failed. Why not sustain the model as it stands, and seek fresh thinkers to examine the national structure and management teams, as this is where failure rests?

  7. The real problem lies with the IRFU themselves,they are an amateur organisation trying/failing to operate in a professional game.
    They also ought to question the tactics of the coach,Kidney, who is clearly out of his depth.Again they should be questioning their collective judgement in hiring him.

    Word back in Ireland,is that he has lost most of the dressing room with only his die hard former Munster contingent backing him.
    What we demand therefore is a Kidney transplant and the IRFU to do the honorable thing and walk the plank… as.they clearly cant walk the walk

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