Joe Schmidt right to cast net wide to bring on board players such as Ah You and Diack
The Irish coach argues Regulation 8 is an issue for the game’s lawmakers, not him
Rodney Ah You relaxs in Resistancia ahead of today’s Test against Argentina. It would be a dereliction of duty on Joe Schmidt’s part not to avail of Irish-qualified players. Photograph: Inpho
Something sucks about IRB Regulation 8. Governing international eligibility, it stipulates a player may represent a country in three ways, namely by dint of birth, lineage through a parent or grandparent, and residency for a minimum of three years.
The second route has been abused in the past but latterly the three-year ruling has been freely tapped into as a form of a delayed international “signing” from abroad and, like it or loath it, Irish rugby is now merrily leading the charge.
This has come sharply into focus this week by Joe Schmidt’s inclusion of South African-born and reared Robbie Diack and New Zealand-born and reared Rodney Ah You in the Irish match-day squad to face Argentina, making it entirely likely for the first time Ireland will blood two residency-qualified internationals on the same day.
Following on from Richardt Strauss, there will also be more where they come from, with the New Zealand pair of Nathan White and Jared Payne set to qualify for Ireland next season and the South African-born CJ Stander to do so after the 2015 World Cup, while Connacht’s latest project signing, Waikato Chiefs centre Bundee Aki, has declared his intention to play for Ireland.
Of course there is the risk of the Irish team’s Irish-ness being diluted and on foot of his retirement, Ronan O’Gara wasforthright in his book, Unguarded, when stating: “Three years is way too little. Even five is too little. Seven isn’t enough. It has to be 10 Non-negotiable. Deal or no deal.”
Schmidt, totally within reason, argues Regulation 8 is an issue for the game’s lawmakers, not him. Indeed, it would be something of a dereliction of duty on his part not to avail of Irish-qualified players. Nor would it make sense for the IRFU and the provinces to ignore the possibilities. As the song says, everyone else is doing it so why can’t we? Paul O’Connell has also said he has no issue with players qualifying by residency provided they add to the quality and strength in depth of the Irish squad.
What sticks in the craw is that exploitation of the regulation favours the wealthy over the poor. Clermont have an academy in Fiji while France has also increasingly begun to dip into its old colonial outposts, and no less than Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, France and Italy also target players in the Southern Hemisphere, mostly South Africans or from the Pacific Islands.
OutcryThe signing of Aki has led to an outcry in New Zealand, whose union chief executive Steve Tew apparently regularly berates his Irish counterpart, Philip Browne, for poaching their players. Aki’s departure also prompted All Blacks coach Steve Hansen to remark: “It is frustrating and it is disappointing. Players here have a dream of playing for the All Blacks and then they suddenly give it up when an easier option comes along. It’s not their dream but they decide to go for it and I think we need players with a bit more mental fortitude: a bit more of a constitution to dig in harder and fight for the dream they really want.”
Admittedly Hansen’s critique was directed more at the players, but even so the New Zealand Herald accused the Celtic unions of “hypocrisy” for being opposed to any alteration of Regulation 8, which the IRB chief executive Brett Gosper has said is here to stay.
The New Zealand outcry is especially rich given how All Blacks draw freely from Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. Ironically, when he was coach of Wales from 1998 to 2002, Graham Henry caused outrage when he proposed importing South African schoolboys by offering scholarships at Welsh schools as a recruitment strategy.
Furthermore, it was under Henry’s watch Wales first capped the New Zealand duo of Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson, whilst ineligible. Both were subsequently barred, but Sinkinson returned after qualifying through residency. Colin Charvis had also been ineligible, but by the time the scandal broke he had completed the required three-year residency.
It’s also worth noting with the possible exception of Aki and Payne, the likelihood is none of Strauss, White, Diack, Ah You or Stander were lost to their respective national teams. Indeed, all have probably become better players through the Irish system.
HostilityAs with Aki, one senses part of the hostility or dislike of Diack’s and particularly Ah You’s selection is the name. Were they named, for example, Jack Mitchell, John Smith or Jim Dean, there mightn’t be the same outcry. Ah You, like Aki, qualifies for Samoa, through his parents, yet ironically his surname is of Chinese origin as his great grandfather emigrated with his family to Samoa.
Laidback to the point of being prostrate, the innately good-humoured and immensely likeable Ah You is a little sketchy about the details. Born in Lower Hutt outside Wellington before his parents Kelope and Faaia moved him and his two sisters Diana and Pepe to the Hoon Hay suburb (“not the flashest of places” he says) in Christchurch when he was about nine, Ah You was more interested in emulating his dad’s amateur boxing until taking up rugby when he was 16.
Converted from a backrower to a prop a year later, in a swift rise through the Canterbury age grades, he was invited to an under-19 trial in New Plymouth. “The whole time I was thinking ‘why the hell am I going here?’ And then Wayne Smith read out the under-19s squad I couldn’t believe my name being called out.”
Ah You was part of the Baby Blacks team which won the Junior World Cup in Belfast in 2008, and the following year in Cardiff. “Every kid in New Zealand wants to wear the black jersey,” he admits of his ambitions then, but he played little rugby for the Canterbury ITM Cup team in the ensuing two years. “To be honest I was taking it for granted really and slacking off,” he admits, and so was ripe for an 18-month contract when Eric Elwood, coach of the Irish Under-20s at those World Cups, made enquiries about him.
Ah You admits the first year was very tough but he had “a serious chat with Pat Lam at the end of last season and something clicked in my head. He just made me want to work hard for him. Scrummaging has come a long way for me. I’ve adapted pretty well to the new laws. I feel it suits me. Off field my lifestyle has improved. I’d had a bad diet and wasn’t working hard enough.”
He played in all of Connacht’s 28 games this season.
Ah You and his wife Bella, a big driving force for him, have two young children, three-year-old Zephaniah (a biblical name meaning gift from God) and one-year-old Xavier, a warrior, with another due in September. “I wanted strong names for our Galway-born boys.”
“Ireland is starting to feel like home now,” he adds, “especially staying on for another two years. God willing, hopefully we’ll stay on for more. The World Cup is my goal and I don’t want this to be just a one-off.”
Prank callWith White, Stephen Archer and Declan Fitzpatrick all sidelined, when Marty Moore was ruled out last Saturday, Schmidt turned to Ah You, who admits when phoned by the Irish coach at around midnight last Saturday, he thought it was a prank call. Ah You was at the Irish squad’s airport hotel by 1.00 and quickly set about learning the lineout calls, and Schmidt admits: “It’s a massive ask for Rodney, and it probably requires a little bit of patience to see how he goes, but he’s very keen, he’s a very nice fellah. I hope he’s not too nice when it comes to coming on off the bench on Saturday if that’s what transpires.”
Ah You says his mum had tears of joy when he skyped home this week. “I was stoked to be involved with Emerging Ireland and just being involved in this tour has boosted my confidence. It’s nice to get a taste of it and see what level to get to in order to crack the Irish squad.”
As an aside, an extension of the residency ruling from three to, say, five years, might well stem the exploitation of Regulation 8. The IRFU should adopt that as a policy in the interests of fairness across the game. But until such time as Regulation 8 is changed, that’s not an issue for the players or Schmidt. And as with Strauss before them and those to follow, the best of Irish luck to Diack and Ah You.