IRFU powers take a sledgehammer to a nail


ON RUGBY:THE RECENT unveiling of the IRFU’s changes to player contracts, specifically those for non-Irish qualified players, raises one simple question: If it ain’t broke, why fix it? The provinces have won four of the last six Heineken Cups in backboning an Irish side which won its first Grand Slam in 61 years and produced its best World Cup campaign to date in New Zealand this year.

Furthermore, the IRFU’s all-powerful Professional Contracts Review Group (PCRG) already have the power of veto over any players signed by the provinces, so why apply such rigid straitjackets to recruitment of overseas players?

This latest initiative emanates from the aforementioned PCRG, which comprises of chairman Martin O’Sullivan (formerly chairman of the Munster Professional Games Board), Pat Whelan (one of the IRFU’s two representatives on the International Rugby Board), Tom Grace (honorary treasurer), Philip Browne (chief executive) and Eddie Wigglesworth (director of rugby).

As things stand, next season will see the province’s right to sign six foreign players (one of whom must be a “special project” capable of being Irish qualified in the future) reduced by one. But now, from 2013 on, only one foreign player will be allowed across all three teams (Leinster, Munster and Ulster) per position. Furthermore, those provinces will not be permitted to renew an existing contract for a non-Irish eligible (NIE) player or bring in a new NIE player into that same position, while all future foreign signings must be “position specific”.

For starters, it is somewhat disingenuous for the IRFU to claim this announcement followed “an extended period of consultation which took place with the Professional Game Boards of the provincial teams and the national team management.”

Apart from twice being asked for their thoughts (and effectively opting for the status quo) the provinces first learned these decisions had already been approved and submitted by the Management Committee (chaired by the influential Finbar Crowley) for ultimate sanction by the Executive Committee in a letter from the IRFU on December 8th.

A Leinster proposal to have this delayed to afford themselves, Munster and Ulster time to analyse the changes, was defeated at Management Committee level by 13-8, which suggests there was far from uniformity even within the Union.

Furthermore, in an email to all Leinster contracted players and executive members from Ben Underwood, chairman of the Leinster Professional Game Board, he wrote: “there are aspects of the IRFU Succession Strategy which cause considerable concern to the Leinster Professional Game Board.” The provinces are hopping mad.

Having spent much of the World Cup travelling with the Ireland squad around New Zealand, one can understand why the Union’s head honchos would look at, say, the lack of cover for Mike Ross and see that Munster and Ulster are starting BJ Botha and John Afoa in most Euro weekends.

Yet, it is by no means stretching credulity to suggest that the lack of Botha last season, and his presence this season, was the difference between Munster not reaching the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup last season and now being four wins from four.

To facilitate the presence of two Irish qualified players in every position, it is risible to decree that all overseas signings must be “position specific”. In other words, no more utility players, or no more Isa Nacewas. But with such strict limitations on foreign imports, the more versatile players such as Nacewa, Paul Warwick and Felipe Contepomi are, the better.

So, if say Nacewa is declared a number 14 but Rob Kearney is injured, does this mean Joe Schmidt has to ring Wigglesworth to ask for permission to play Nacewa at fullback? Never mind recruitment of overseas players in the future, recruiting coaches could become tricky.

Presumably too, if two or more of the provinces opt for players in the same position, it will be the PCGB who will decide which one is given preference. In this and much more, the PCGB will leave themselves open to charges of favouritism.

Worse still is the diktat that the provinces will not be permitted to renew the contract of a foreign player. For European players this would represent a restriction on the free movement of workers, which is a basic EU right. Even for non-European players, to be prevented from having a contract renewed on the basis of nationality would appear to be an infringement of employment and international law, and blatant discrimination under the Equality Act.

In any event, it would also mean no more long-term loyalty, again no more Nacewas, Contepomis, Doug Howletts etc. Would Leinster have reached their Holy Grail had Dr Phil not hung around for six years? Would they have re-visited it last season without Nacewa? Nor, sadly, would they have attained such iconic status with their provincial fans.

Kearney may not always enjoy the comparisons with Nacewa, but it’s assuredly given his game an extra edge, while Nacewa’s versatility and qualities would have kept plenty of Leinster backs on their toes.

Henceforth, if Kearney or any other Irish player knows their provincial place is pretty much cast in stone, what good is that going to do them? Complacency will only be encouraged by this decree.

It is also a little disingenuous of the Union to state that “the Ireland team remains the financial engine that supports each of the four provincial teams” by purely citing figures.

The provinces are the engine behind much of the game’s heightened popularity in recent times, not to mention developing more complete players for the national team. And last season alone, in addition to the dividend from Ulster reaching the quarter-finals, by hiring and filling out the Aviva four times, and by winning the Heineken Cup, Leinster generated a €3 million “bonus” for the IRFU.

These revised rules also smack of a Little Irelander, anti-foreigner mentality. It will make the recruitment of quality imports more difficult for the province. It will make life even harder for the coaches of Leinster, Munster and Ulster and it runs the very real risk of weakening those three provinces against European rivals who have nothing like the same restrictions placed on them.

Oh, and there is one way the IRFU could increase the options for the national coach by one in almost every position virtually overnight. It’s called Connacht. Investing in them truly would be visionary. However, Connacht are excluded from this policy for the next three years because of their “new programme of structural and performance development”.

That must be very comforting for them altogether.

Instead, some of the IRFU powerbrokers have taken a sledgehammer to a nail.