Gordon D’Arcy: Overseas stars essential for Ireland’s success
Our provincial squads need to be constantly strengthened by world-class foreign players
Aly Muldowney and Bundee Aki celebrate with John Muldoon after Connacht’s Pro12 win over Leinster. Connacht’s success was built on Pat Lam striking the correct balance between homegrown talent and players recruited from elsewhere.
Remarkably, despite two Irish teams each being one victory away from achieving what no Irish team has ever done before, this cannot be considered a great season for Irish rugby.
It has been an unbelievable June but we cannot simply ignore the previous nine months. The problems encountered this season will reoccur if we do not learn from general and in many cases off-field issues.
Clearly, the under-20s and senior coaches identified, then relayed on field problems from the Six Nations to intelligent players, who corrected the underlying issues. That’s all you expect from a coach and all you can ask of a player. In that sense Irish rugby is in good shape.
But an obvious problem still exists: the Champions Cup. Pre-season training starts in the provinces this week but look at how many players are only starting their holidays on Monday. It will be September by the time the provinces get their best senior and underage players fully conditioned – just before the crucial European games begin.
Just like last season, when the likes of Saracens and Wasps made our teams pay dearly for being unfamiliar with provincial systems after the World Cup.
When Irish rugby was at its most successful – the 2009 to 2015 period – at least one province always challenged for European honours. With no European title captured since 2012, the 2015/16 campaign cannot be seen as an anomaly. It will become the norm if our provincial squads are not constantly strengthened by world-class foreign players.
Best in the worldFelipe Contepomi
Rocky Elsom’s one season in Dublin didn’t stall the rise of our backrowers. If anything he educated Jamie Heaslip and Seán O’Brien by showing them, every day, what was required to become and remain world-class. Isa Nacewa kept Rob Kearney on the bench in the 2009 Heineken Cup final but within a month Rob was the starting Lions fullback in South Africa.
The presence of these men undoubtedly helped – not hindered – Leinster’s climb to the pinnacle of Europe. Ireland duly profited. The tactical nuances of Felipe had been soaked up by Johnny so that he hit the ground running once Felipe got injured. Jamie’s brilliance as a broken- field runner during the 2009 Six Nations was in part due to playing with Rocky.
Same can be seen in the progress of Dev Toner ever since Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn moved on.
There is not only room for this calibre of foreign player – they are essential for Ireland’s continued success. Because international success is dependent on provincial success.
If the powers-that-be fail to grasp that, then they have failed to grasp the inner workings of the game on this island. And that may put Irish rugby back years.
The wealth of English and French clubs presents a huge challenge but it’s a challenge that must not be ignored.
Connacht’s success was built on Pat Lam striking the correct balance between homegrown talent and players recruited from elsewhere like Bundee Aki, Jake Heenan and Aly Muldowney.
I also think we need to look more closely at loaning young players to other clubs. Take Andrew Porter: tearing it up at the under-20 World Cup yet look how far down the loosehead pecking order he is at Leinster (Jack McGrath, Cian Healy, Ed Byrne, Ian Hirst and Jeremy Loughman are all in the way). If Porter was English, he would be playing Premiership rugby next season or at least getting regular exposure in the championship.
Instead, like James Ryan and Max Deegan, Porter is only entering year one of the Leinster Academy. In the next 12 to 18 months if there hasn’t been a direct path for these players into senior rugby they should be allowed to gain valuable experience playing in English championship or even the Pro D2 in France.
Take Jacob Stockdale. The Ulster fullback is another who has been superb for Ireland under-20s past few weeks but on his return to Belfast Charles Piutau, an established All Black, will be in the way.
So will Jared Payne and Stuart Olding. That’s a very long queue for a player who looks physically ready to play senior rugby.
Bring him home just as the Six Nations takes Olding and Payne away. Because that’s when he will get the full value of playing and training alongside Piutau. Otherwise the provincial bottleneck will only get more and more congested.
Piutau won’t be there forever. No reason, barring injury, why Stockdale can’t have a 10-year career in the Ulster starting XV. But, for now, he might need to play competitive rugby elsewhere.
It’s a case-by-case scenario and all about understanding the intricacies, and there are many, of Irish rugby.
Because someday Joe Schmidt will be gone and we will have to strive for continued success by relying on long-term systems that are put in place now. Hopefully Joe’s departure does not happen as soon as some reports from New Zealand are suggesting. Although, potentially, a succession plan has been put in place with the appointment of Andy Farrell as assistant coach.
In the meantime, this Saturday, Ireland are on the cusp of something truly special. For the first time ever a touring team will crave the third Test match of a summer tour in the southern hemisphere. Normally you are mentally broken by late June but I’m certain Rory Best’s men are the opposite.
Everyone expected a massive backlash from the Springboks last weekend. Instead they scraped a win. That tells me Ireland are in control of the psychological battle.
Altitude mattered last Saturday. At least that unknown is banished on return to Port Elizabeth. These Springboks play on the Highveld several times a year, while Irish players were experiencing it for the first or second time in their career.
We saw what happened to the collective performance and not just one or two players. At 60 minutes you feel like you have played 80 minutes but there is 20 minutes to go. It’s torture.
The South African bench – with Ruan Combrinck and Warren Whiteley scoring tries – swung the momentum. Combrinck was especially good and exhaustion meant we could not even hang on. At altitude, it feels like you are chasing after yourself. Four percent less oxygen when 1,000 metres above sea level slows the mind – and the body listens to the mind.
And considering Ireland went guts out to brilliantly build a 16-point lead, it is understandable that there was nothing left in the tank. But the all-or-nothing approach was a risk worth taking.
Joe Schmidt should never be questioned again when he talks about the value of the squad. He has used 30 players over two Tests when they came agonisingly close to securing a 2-0 win in South Africa.
That’s clever use of resources.
In the meantime, Tadhg Furlong repaid the faith placed in him with a serious performance. Quinn Roux ensured we won another key psychological battle at scrum time. Roux didn’t reach the level of Iain Henderson around the pitch in the first Test but his scrummaging and a few heavy impacts justified the selection.
More importantly we got inside South African heads in an area they regard as their domain. The mind games will decide the series. Ireland are in a prime position with the players coming off 30 games this season. Only one to go.
All the systems and combinations are in place, whereas South Africa are struggling to find their feet under a new coach who has already had to radically change the way he wanted his team to play.
All Ireland have to do this week is recover. Build up energy reserves,load up on carbohydrates by eating whatever you want, whenever you want. This is the perfect situation for a touring party to be in. Serious competition for places with a Test series in South Africa on the line.
None of my generation ever made it to this moment. What I do know is, if you win the battle in your head the victory will follow. We have already shown the value of attacking their traditional strength. The scrum. Roux and Furlong will probably make way for Stander and Ross to keep the Springboks wondering what on earth is going on.
That’s been another key element of Joe Schmidt teams. To be constantly evolving. Just like Irish rugby, from top to bottom, must strive to do together.