Unmistakable Kiwi influence in Irish rugby continues to bear fruit

A look back at the New Zealand-born players to have donned a green shirt

Much has been made hereabout regarding the presence of four New Zealand players in the Irish team, not least in the TAB betting campaign, which rather overlooks how the All Blacks delve into the Pacific Islands.

While many have Kiwi roots and all understandably dream of playing for the All Blacks, their Tongan-born replacement scrumhalf in the second Test, Folau Fakatava, is a curious case.

Fakatava moved to New Zealand when he was 16, although the eligibility through residency only begins when a player turns 18. Under the three-year World Rugby rules, that initially made Fakatava eligible for the All Blacks in late 2020, when he turned 21.

Fakatava had then been in the curious position of being deemed ineligible for the All Blacks in 2022, despite having been eligible to play for them since late 2020 and throughout 2021, due to World Rugby shifting from a three-year residential period for Test eligibility to a five-year period. But on appeal, World Rugby agreed that this was an anomaly and the player was granted permission to play for the All Blacks this month, which seems fair enough.


That the Irish team has never had more of a Kiwi influence is fitting, for the New Zealand influence has never been greater. Ireland have had three Kiwi coaches in Murray Kidd, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt – more than fromUn another other foreign nation - while a host of others have left indelible marks at provincial level.

It works both ways, with Greg Feek and John Plumtree now part of the All Blacks coaching ticket after stints in Ireland, as well as Schmidt in the background. No coach was more influential in becoming capable of beating the All Blacks than Schmidt.

Isa Nacewa never played for Ireland, although but for a two-minute stint for Fiji he probably would have been an All Black. Instead, the biggest beneficiaries were Leinster. Whereas Nacewa played five years for Auckland, Dublin became his second home during two spells of eight seasons with Leinster.

He was a key part of all four of their Champions Cup successes, as well as a Challenge Cup and two Pro 12 titles. In 185 matches, Nacewa scored 706 points, comprising 47 tries, 90 conversions, three drop goals and 94 penalties. He has simply the best overseas import Irish rugby has ever known, but others have played for Ireland, whether through the residency ruling or bloodline.

New Zealand-born players to have played for Ireland

Andy Ward

The trailblazer. Born and reared in the lovely port town of Whangarei near the tip of the North Island, Ward so enjoyed a short-term agreement to help guide Ballynahinch to promotion to the AIL in 1994-95 that he returned. He was then a signature, and ballsy, call-up by Warren Gatland for his first game as Irish head coach against France in 1998, from Division Three of the AIL!

Ward was a key figure in Ulster’s European Cup success the following season, going on to become an icon for the province in making 112 appearances and winning 28 caps for Ireland. Ward became the strength and conditioning coach of the Antrim Gaelic football team and now runs a fitness studio in Dunadry in Antrim.

Sean McCahill

Born, reared and schooled in Auckland, McCahill’s father was an Irish immigrant who established a profitable road-making and infrastructure business called Green and McCahill. McCahill is also the younger brother of Bernie McCahill, a former All Black, and while playing for Sunday’s Well he won one cap for Ireland in Murray Kidd’s first game in charge, a 44-8 win over Fiji at the old Lansdowne Road, in November 1995.

Ross Nesdale

Nesdale grew up on a beef and sheep farm in Oroua on the North Island, and always had an Irish passport, courtesy of his paternal grandparents who hailed from Bantry. Even his great grandparents on his mother’s side were Irish, so when he grew weary of understudying Sean Fitzpatrick at Auckland, he engineered a move to Newcastle which led to him winning 13 caps for Ireland between 1997 and 1999. He was part of the squad at the 1999 Rugby World Cup where he played in two matches. After retiring in 2001 he worked with the All Blacks for three years but subsequently focused on his passion for drawing and painting.

Mike Mullins

Even though his father Thomas was born and bred in Limerick before taking the boat to New Zealand in search of work in the 50s, while his mother Sharon was of Irish Maori descent, there was some misgivings from the Little Irelanders about Mullins being parachuted into the Irish squad by the IRFU, Munster and Warren Gatland for the 1999 World Cup, in which Mullins made his debut against Romania.

A tough, explosive centre, Mullins played 16 times for Ireland and 11 games for Munster until he returned to New Zealand in 2006. Interesting fellah who very much marched to his own beat.

Isaac Boss

Born in Tokorua in Waikato, Boss always had a hankering to play for Ireland since watching Five Nations games in the middle of the night with his dad, whose mum hailed from Glenarm in Co Antrim. He turned down a call-up for the All Blacks to join Ulster in 2005, and played over 100 times in five seasons with them and another 133 games in six seasons with Leinster. The highlight of his 22-Test career with Ireland was sealing the historic Croke Park win over England in 2007 with the game’s final try.

Michael Bent

From Hawera in Taranaki, for whom he played in the ITM Cup, Bent qualified for Ireland through his Irish grandmother and was parachuted into the Irish team (famously posing with a hurley and sliotar after training) to make his test debut as a replacement against South Africa in November 2012. Ultimately he won only five caps, all off the bench, but Bent went on to play 164 games for Leinster in ten seasons before heading home last year. Called up to training with the Irish squad in week one here due to a shortage of props.

Rodney Ah You

From Lower Hutt in Wellington, the one-time New Zealand Under-19 and Under-21 prop joined Connacht initially on a short-term contract in 2010 but ended up spending six seasons there and two more with Ulster. He made his debut against Argentina in Resistencia in 2014, and had two more caps the following November against South Africa and Georgia. All were off the bench and all were Irish wins. Now 33, he is still playing for Vannes in ProD2.

Jared Payne

Identified as a long-term successor to Brian O’Driscoll, the former New Zealand 7s and Under-21 player joined Ulster in 2014 and despite missing virtually his entire first season with a torn Achilles tendon, would go on to spend six seasons as a player with the province. Payne became a hugely influential figure in the Irish team when winning 20 caps from November 2014 onwards before concussion issues on the 2017 Lions tour forced him to retire. Has just ended a lauded five-year stint as defence coach, and an 11-year association with Ulster, to hook up with Jono Gibbes at Clermont.

Nathan White

Like Bent, born in Hawera and a prop, White captained Waikato and played for the Chiefs before relocating to Leinster in 2011. Played one season there and another four in Connacht, thus qualifying for Ireland through residency and making his Test debut at the age of 33 in a World Cup warm-up win over Scotland in August 2015. Managed to win 13 caps, including five in the 2015 World Cup, before being forced to retire with concussion issues in 2016. Now coaching with Toyota Verblitz in Japan.

Sean Reidy

Born in Auckland, Reidy was Irish-qualified through his grandfather, who was born in Kerry, while his uncle Rod Ketels played for the All Blacks. Reidy played for Counties Manukau but couldn’t make it into Super Rugby so wrote to all four provinces and was given a short-term contract with Ulster in 2014. He stayed eight seasons, playing for them 152 times, and won two caps for Ireland on the tours to South Africa in 2016 and Japan in 2017. Released at the end of last season, he returned to New Zealand.

Joey Carbery

The claims on the Dargaville-born Carbery being a Kiwi are a bit of a stretch given he was moved to Athy at the age of 11 when his family returned to Ireland. His game was then nurtured in Athy, Blackrock, UCD, Clontarf, the Irish Under-20s, Leinster and latterly Munster, and seeing out the wins over New Zealand on debut in Chicago in 2016 (on the week of his 21st birthday) and last year are among his Test highlight reels. Admittedly there remains signs of him learning the game barefoot in NZ in that languid style, his ability to operate as a second playmaker from 12 or 15 is a useful weapon and after an injury ravaged two years is starting to look the part more and more.

Jamison Gibson-Park

From the Great Barrier Island and a product of Taranaki, despite his innate conditioning, speed to the breakdown and heads-up ability, his career in New Zealand was largely one of an understudy, notably to TJ Perenara at the Hurricanes, before he decamped to Leinster in 2016 aged 24. His professionalism and increasing self-belief have blossomed, and in the last year he has become Ireland’s first-choice scrumhalf and the heartbeat of this team.

Bundee Aki

A particularly resonant homecoming for Aki given that his mother had never seen him play for Ireland, and possibly at all, until he captained his adopted country against the Maori All Blacks in Hamilton. An inspirational figure for Connacht, where he is entering a ninth season, and especially in their 2016 Pro12 success. Aki was also an ever-present in the 2018 Six Nations and has been there for many of Ireland’s finest days in the last five seasons.

James Lowe

A former Maori All Blacks winger cum fullback who sacrificed any aspirations to be an All Black by joining Leinster in 2017, Lowe responded to a defensively difficult first campaign with Ireland by re-emerging as much improved all round player. His left boot, carrying, offloading and finishing have become a major weapon for both Leinster (a whopping 47 tries in 65 games) and Ireland - six tries in 13 Tests.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times