THE IRFU has announced revised parameters in which foreign professional players will be contracted to Leinster, Munster and Ulster that will come into effect at the start of the 2013-2014 season. Connacht will not be bound by the accord because of their player development programme. The union has afforded the provinces an 18-month lead-in time to prepare for the new regulations.
The basis for the new initiative centres on the refinement of the professional player contract policy with a view to ensuring the future rude health of the national succession strategy for the Ireland team. That’s the premise at least. The union wants to ensure that the national team management has the widest range possible, in terms of depth and quality, from which to select future Irish teams.
The non-Irish eligible (NIE) players on existing contracts that extend beyond the start date in 2013 will not be affected by the new structure, until such a time that their contracts come up for renewal. The implications for the provinces are considerable and manifold, stress testing their academies and also placing a huge emphasis on contracting shrewdly in terms of foreign players.
There will also have to be significant dialogue between the provinces, evident in the first directive which stipulates that ‘one NIE player only in each of the 15 field positions across the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster; one foreign player allowed across all three teams per position’.
Essentially it means that of, for example, three fullbacks selected by the provinces on a given match day, two must be eligible to play for Ireland. That applies to all 15 positions and would be unworkable at present when considering say the tighthead prop situation: John Afoa (Ulster), Peter Borlase, BJ Botha (Munster), Nathan White (Leinster). It is a state of affairs that would not be permissible from the start of 2013-2014, when only one could be contracted to an Irish province.
The term Irish eligible also carries a rider in that they must be “two suitably experienced players”, that is to say “first choice selections in the European Cup or major RaboDirect League matches”.
The second edict demands that “for the season 2013/14 and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad”.
The upshot of the ruling is that a foreign player who comes to the end of his contract will not have it renewed and a province is not permitted to bring in another non Irish qualified player in that same position. Under the new legislation players like Isa Nacewa and Doug Howlett, to name but two hugely influential and successful imports, would not get second contracts after the first one elapsed; unless they were re-signed in a different position in which there was not another foreign player in the other two provinces.
The third clarification under the new regime is that “all future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland”. Referring to a recent illustration it would mean that Ulster would not have been allowed to sign Stefan Terblanche.
The final refinement – the new guidelines will be regulated by an existing committee, the Professional Contracts Review Group (PCRG) of the IRFU – states that “all future provincial NIE player contracts will be position specific”.
There will be no more signing of utility backs as one example. A province must specify what position an NIE player will play and, barring a catastrophic run of injuries or exceptional circumstances, as adjudicated by the union, he must play there.
The IRFU’s director of rugby Eddie Wigglesworth explained: “It enables both the province and from a national point of view to focus on the succession strategy by position. We need to create the gaps, we need to create the opportunities for Irish players across the full 15 positions to gain the experience that will allow them to front up on European Cup days and major RaboDirect games and put them in the limelight for selection by the national management.”
The provinces will retain the right to contract five foreign players, one of whom must have the facility to become Irish qualified, under the new guidelines. It will, though, on one hand necessitate frank dialogue between the three Irish provinces or alternatively the poker-playing skills of Doyle Brunson.
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne stressed that the aspirations of the provinces and national teams were interdependent in that the new guidelines were in place to try and find the best way to realise those aspirations.
He also explored the financial implications. “Last year the IRFU had an income of €69 million, (of which) 94 per cent comes from the professional game and of that 81 per cent or €55 million of income is generated by the activities of the national team.
“The national team costs about 14 per cent in expenditure but the provincial game probably accounts for 41 per cent of our expenditure. The provincial teams are subvented and subsidised by the activities of the national team. You can’t have one without the other.
“The whole process of engaging was to try and find a balance that will allow us continued success at provincial level and obviously greater success at international level. It is critical for the international team that we take these steps. In particular we are doing it at this time of the year so that we are in a position to give these refined guidelines to the provinces. They need to plan a year or so in advance in relation to how they make up their squads in a year or two’s time.
“NIEs have delivered much value and support to the success of the provincial teams and development of Irish players over the last number of years. The intention is that this will continue, but not to the detriment of the progress of Irish qualified players . . .”
PLAYER CONTRACTS: KEY CHANGES
One non Irish eligible (NIE) player only in each of the 15 field positions across the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster e.g. one foreign player allowed across all three teams per position.*
For the season 2013/14 and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad.
All future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland.
All future provincial non Irish eligible player contracts will be position specific.
*Connacht are external to this process as they have recently commenced a new programme of structural and performance development agreed with the IRFU.