Our rugby teams want to play with the best but can they pay with the best?
Private backing may be the only way the provinces can compete with the financial muscle of French and English
Rocky Elsom (left) is tackled by George Chuter and Tom Croft of Leicester in the 2009 Heineken Cup final. The signing of Elsom has hugely important in the Irish province making the big breakthrough in claiming victory in Europe’s premier competition. Photograph: Graham Stuart/Inpho
Back in the summer of 2008, Michael Cheika asked (more likely thumped the table and screamed) for an influx of quality overseas players. Leinster delivered, duly adding three high-class internationals in Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom and CJ van der Linde to a squad already featuring Felipe Contepomi and Chris Whitaker.
The following May they lifted the Heineken Cup for the first time in Murrayfield after beating Leicester.
Nacewa would be joined by Heinke van der Meuwe, Richardt Strauss, Stanley Wright and Nathan Hines when regaining the trophy against Northampton two years later, with Nathan White and Brad Thorn coming in for Wright and Hines when Leinster retained the Cup 12 months on with their win over Ulster.
When Munster first reached their Holy Grail in 2006, it’s doubtful whether they could have done so without Trevor Halstead – whose best three games of his Munster stint were in the knock-out stages, culminating in his try-scoring finale against Biarritz in a match-day squad also featuring Shaun Payne and Federico Pucciarello.
Two years later, the hugely influential Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi formed the midfield partnership in the win over Toulouse, with Paul Warwick on the bench.
Tired of watching their provincial rivals make the knock-out stages as they failed to do so for 11 years, Ulster went to the IRFU in 2010 and implored them to back a recruitment drive focusing on high-quality internationals.
That summer Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and Pedrie Wannenburg arrived to supplement BJ Botha, and a year later they acquired Jared Payne and, in replacing the Munster-bound Botha, John Afoa.
Ulster have reached the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for the last four seasons, including the final two seasons ago.
All of this is stating the blindingly obvious, but is worth underlining in the week when Matt O’Connor bemoaned the IRFU’s policy of nurturing indigenous players ahead of recruiting world-class imports.
“There are a lot of blokes globally that would come and play for Leinster but that’s not the reality,” he said. “It is for no other reason except the Union say that you can’t have them.”
Most likely his comments can be taken in the context of a quarter-final defeat away to the expensively assembled globe-trotting galacticos at Toulon, who contributed just two players to France’s Six Nations campaign (and one to Italy’s) whereas Leinster supplied 17 to Ireland’s title-winning effort.
Back in 2008, the provinces were entitled to have six foreign players – three top-end internationals and three less expensive recruits. That has since dipped to four plus one special project, a la Strauss and Payne.