Ireland's future lies in Europe

 

LAST week a letter in this newspaper, from a Mr Dagan Malone, who resides in San Francisco, but who is obviously, a keen follower of Ireland's fortunes, suggested that Ireland's poor performances this season gave me added fuel for my opposition to professionalism in rugby. I was not in need of any fuel.

He would have been infinitely more, accurate had he said `added substance' to the predictable difficulties Ireland and indeed other countries would inevitably face once rugby went professional.

I would make the point, too, and make it very forcefully, that I did not at any staged suggest that, Ireland's poor performances were due to the fact that players were being paid to wear the green jersey. The game has gone professional and we must live with that. What I did say was that motivation must always come primarily from the heart and not from the pocket. That contention has widespread support in this country, including from many who played for Ireland and some who have coached the national team. It is a spiritual element and that is always essential for any small nation working from a small base of players.

That has always been an essential element for Irish teams. It is scarcely necessary to elaborate on the reasons why, they have been inlaid out here and elsewhere often enough It relates not only to numbers but to tradition and historical elements.

If the Irish players were to get three times more than the £3,000 per international match appearance, it would still apply. That is at the very core of the issue. It, is very significant that exactly the same points were made by the Scotland coach Richie Dixon and his predecessor Douglas Morgan about the Scots. The Lions manager Fran Cotton and the Lions coach Ian McGeechan have also stressed it. Scotland work from a similar base to Ireland and the game there has much in common with Ireland.

But Mr Malone raises some interesting points and makes assertions that most certainly do not stand up to fact or examination. He says, for instance, that the game as a whole has heightened its appeal throughout the world by turning professional and that the return of the great rugby league players will only help to increase skills and the quality of the game.

Well let us take a look at that suggestion. Only one former rugby league player has made it back into the Scotland team, Alan Tait. Some players such as Scott Quinnell, Scott Gibbs, Alan Bateman and Jonathan Davies have returned to the Welsh side but, with due respect not with much success. In fact Quinnell refused to play for Wales until a special financial package was arranged for him. Now the implications of that scarcely sustain one of Mr Malone's contentions nor do the results achieved by Wales who, like Ireland and Scotland, only won one match in the championship. It is significant, too, that the wins achieved by all three were so to speak, against each other. Ireland beat Wales, Scotland beat Ireland and Wales beat Scotland.

I am at a loss too, to understand what good it will do, or indeed has done, English clubs who signed rugby league players on short term contracts - notably for the European Cup.

Nor do I see the merit in English clubs signing veteran internationals from other countries. Harlequins have a league-of-nations team. They did not make the expected impact in the European Cup, nor will they win the Courage League either. Saracens are another club who have adopted the same approach and without much success.

One wonders, too, what effect the continuing imports will have on English rugby. For instance, 10 of the 21 first division clubs, have foreign out-halves in their teams. Is it any wonder then that England had to call Rob Andrew, who retired 21 months ago, back onto the bench against Wales when Paul Grayson was forced to withdraw from the team. An out-half today, what other position tomorrow? "That is surely a warning for England, said Cotton. The ongoing signings by English clubs of players who are not eligible for England is crazy. It does nothing for England. It does less for the countries from which the players are being, signed such as Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

What professionalism has done is make the strong stronger and the weak weaker. Market forces prevail and, it was inevitable that English clubs would rush to sign players from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, thus weakening the club base in those countries. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that playing in the English league has helped the Irish, Welsh and Scottish players. The belief in all three countries is that it has had the opposite effect and there is very strong evidence to support that view.

In the Irish context, moving to England has done little for most of the Irish players involved. Some of them have moved to clubs who are being beaten fairly regularly and comprehensively and that is not an aid to confidence. Gabriel Fulcher, for instance, has been on winning side this season on only five occasions. He was on the Munster team that won twice in Europe, he won twice with, London Irish and came on as a replacement when Ireland beat Wales. "That has not helped me at all," said Fulcher, who is one of the players dropped this season by Ireland. He played infinitely better when he was with Cork Constitution and readily admits that.

There is scarcely evidence to sustain a belief that being "exposed" to the alleged, high standards in the Courage League did anything for those such as Eddie Halvey and Victor Costello. Neither has been able to win a place on the national team and both are now back in Ireland. David Humphreys, Jonathan Bell, Paul Burke, Richard Wallace and Fulcher certainly have not profited in form or ability by their moves to the English league. Nor has it helped Simon Mason, Ross Nesdale or Nick Popplewell who are playing in the English League second division. Their teams win by 60 and 70 points regularly against very inferior opposition. That is hardly exposure to high quality competition on a regular basis.

It is significant that France, who won the International Championship, the European Cup and the European Conference this season, did so with all home-based players. They have steadfastly refused to consider players who have gone out of French club rugby. Mr Malone is quite correct when he says that Ireland could not afford to do that. But what Ireland must do is get players back from England and that is why the IRFU must get it right in relation to the contracts they are currently working on. The Scots have now also decided to pursue a similar line.

It was detrimental to the Irish provinces this season that some players were unable to play because their English clubs would not release them. We all remember the unedifying scramble about the release of London Irish players.

Exposure to high standards of play will certainly help Irish players but, for several reasons, not in the English league. The focus must be in Europe. Next season there will be a double programme of matches in the European Cup, so that means a minimum of eight games plus the inter-provincial series. It will help the provinces greatly if they have the players currently based in England available. It will strengthen the teams considerably and will be much better in terms of preparation of the teams especially now that the provinces will have a professional management structure.

"The game rushed into professionalism and was not ready for it," said McGeechan. "It has imposed particular difficulties on countries such as Ireland, Wales and Scotland and very nearly killed the Five Nations series," said Cotton. Amen to that.