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Granny rule and Leinster schoolkids the way forward as Ireland look to add depth

With residency law set to be extended to five years, the IRFU have changed approach

Do you reckon Ireland would have been durable enough to complete the Grand Slam at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day in 2018 without their Auckland bruiser and South African farmer?

Remember, CJ Stander's iconic try against England was created by Aki's break and clever pass. Don't forget Jacob Stockdale's immortal finish against the All Blacks. Could it have happened without Aki's ability to change the point of attack?

On all fronts we have our doubts but those days are almost over.

As soon as World Rugby extended the residency law for international selection from three to five years the IRFU ceased their search for the next Stander or Aki. It means James Lowe, the swashbuckling New Zealand winger, will be the last Test match calibre player to qualify for Ireland via temporary migration.


This forced the IRFU to move away from a hugely successful recruitment policy – Stander and Aki being the shining lights albeit for every Jared Payne there is a Tom McCartney – by increasing investment in two key strands of player development: the deep well of Leinster schoolboys and IQ Rugby.

The former is already solving some glaring positional weaknesses from the previous decade: tighthead props and hookers are streaming through the ranks with Blackrock's Tom Clarkson filling the hole left by Jack Aungier joining Connacht, Roman Salanoa going to Munster and Vakh Abdaladze's injury.

"He's a really exciting tighthead prospect who is learning with the big guns," said Stuart Lancaster of the 20-year-old.

That's how Irish rugby is set to evolve; Kiwis and South Africans will mostly be replaced by English kids with Irish blood

Also, the era of South African-sized, Irish-born hookers is about to begin with Dan Sheehan, a six foot three inch, 117kg specimen out of Clongowes Wood College, challenging the ultra-physical Rónan Kelleher for a starting berth.

Rival rugby nations that decided to keep recruiting, mainly Pacific Islanders in the southern hemisphere and South Africans or Kiwis up north, got an unexpected bonus last month when the game’s governing body quietly kept the three-year rule in place until the end of 2021 on “compassionate grounds”.

Take Lowe as an example. Should he get injured before December 31st, 2020 and therefore miss out being capped, he would have to wait until 2022 to wear the green jersey. Now he has an extra 12 months to learn Amhrán na bhFiann.

The Covid related loophole was seemingly to protect developing nations unable to play any Test matches in 2020, but it also allows Japan, France, England and New Zealand, club scenes that are littered with foreign talent, to add extra weapons to their national squads two years ahead of time.

Even Scotland benefit as Edinburgh's South African prop Pierre Schoeman is eligible in 2021 rather than 2023.

The IRFU's response has been to double down on an old strategy: the granny rule. The intent is to unearth talent, mainly from England, like at the start of professionalism when men like Kevin Maggs, Simon Geoghegan and Dion O'Cuinneagain brought enormous value to the national side.

This is IQ Rugby. Managed by Joe Lydon, Andy Farrell's former team-mate at Wigan, with the assistance of Maggs, young players like Hayden Hyde are identified and funnelled into the national underage ranks before a provincial academy takes over. Hyde, the Surrey born and bred centre, with Dublin relatives on his mother's side, is now contracted to Ulster.

I would have strong thoughts about players moving from province to province

Scan the Ireland under-20 squads these past three seasons and he is not the only one.

That’s how Irish rugby is set to evolve; Kiwis and South Africans will mostly be replaced by English kids with Irish blood flowing through their veins.

The loss of readymade talent – like Payne, so nearly an All Black, being parachuted into the Ireland midfield when Brian O'Driscoll retired – means that the IRFU performance director David Nucifora has also doubled down on his unwritten rule: Ireland selection only comes from the four provincial squads.

Moving abroad is the only viable option for some players. "I would love to play for Ireland every weekend," said Seán O'Brien last week but the Tullow Tank had no decision to make when London Irish and Declan Kidney offered a three-year contract reportedly worth €1.3 million. There was nothing even remotely comparable to keep him at home.

Then there are the two cautionary tales.

Ian Madigan left Leinster for Bordeaux Begles in 2016 with a firm belief that his performances in the Top 14 would prove irresistible to an Ireland coach that selected Johnny Sexton during his time at Racing 92. Leinster barely drew breath before unleashing Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne.

The treatment of Simon Zebo provided the clearest message of all. Zebo presumed his rare skill set would at least keep him in the Ireland squad seven months before he switched from Munster to Paris. His surprise exclusion in November 2017 was the precise moment that the IRFU drew a thin green line in the sand.

Not one genuine contender for international honours has flown the coop since.

When the cases of O’Brien, Madigan and Zebo are examined, each decision to leave points towards irresistible financial gain. Madigan was not interested in joining a rival province.

"I would have strong thoughts about players moving from province to province," he said from his new home in Belfast. "I am a purist in that sense. You are from Leinster, you play for Leinster. Similar with the Munster lads, Ulster lads and Connacht lads.

“But things have changed.”

They mostly certainly have. Madigan is challenging Billy Burns – a World Cup-winning England under-20 outhalf – and Clonmel's Bill Johnston for the Ulster 10 jersey. That's how the system works; talent gets spread around the provinces so every position is three deep.

Make all the noises you like but pride of place no longer matters as much as it used to. The Ulster roster has more Blackrock educated players (five) than Leinster (four). Dan McFarland can turn to 11 former blue shirts, who are automatically motivated to perform regardless of crest or colour.

Anyway, we can support whoever or whatever team we like, because rugby is back on the menu.