Gordon D’Arcy: The real project players should be those developed by the IRFU

Not enough being done to nurture Irish born players ahead of recruiting overseas

 

In all my time playing and watching rugby I’ve never seen a head coach so disengaged from his team’s warm-up as Allister Coetzee on Saturday.

As Joe Schmidt got the juices flowing, Coetzee was gazing at the opposition. Actually, there was one other time. Rassie Erasmus did the same down in Castres last month as Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery ran Munster’s pre game routine. That made sense. Erasmus knew he was going home. He was empowering the young coaches he leaves behind.

Coetzee, setting out cones and carrying bags, cut the image of someone on work experience. Maybe he knows he’s leaving too. But it just seemed odd that he was watching Ireland build to a crescendo.

A Schmidt warm-up is a sight to behold. It’s an extension of the game for Joe, and his players grasp this with everyone, to borrow an American phrase, “Locked-In” the moment they step off the team bus.

Maybe Coetzee was thinking, “Ah, so that’s how it is done.”

South African head coach Allister Coetzee cut the image of someone on work experience. Maybe he knows he’s leaving too. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
South African head coach Allister Coetzee cut the image of someone on work experience. Maybe he knows he’s leaving too. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Calling Ireland the “All Blacks of Europe” was a ridiculous line to be spouting before and after this poor relation of a Test match. I don’t want to dig into the many problems facing Springbok rugby – because it would take me a lifetime of columns to even scratch the surface – but I couldn’t help thinking why on earth Erasmus would want what he describes as “his dream job”?

Confines of quota system

Again, a lifetime of digging to understand that mindset. We should probably leave them to it. We have our own issues.

I do think Erasmus, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Free State rugby and South Africans plying their trade in Europe, will pick the best players in each position. He is probably the most qualified coach to succeed within the confines of the quota system.

But on Saturday I saw a world class Springbok pack run out of confidence because this atrocious backline failed to reward their endeavours. Johann van Graan brings valuable lessons with him to Limerick. The body language of Eben Etzebeth and the other forwards around the 50 minute mark told me all I needed to know.

They threw in the towel.

Being a forward is a thankless pursuit at the best of times. It’s a dangerously attritional job, the most strenuous manual labour imaginable. Lift 20 stone men, crash to earth, get up leap up, run, hit someone, up and run some more, remove bodies latched on the ball, twist, squeeze and have your bodily parts twisted and squeezed in return.

You spend your career doing this. Climb from the rubble and the game has moved 15 metres backwards. Eventually your mind snaps. There is only so much Etzebeth, the Springbok leader before his time because others decided to earn 10 times his salary in Europe, can swallow. You keep going but the effort disintegrates. You check out knowing you can’t possibly win.

Ireland currently exist on a different plane to South Africa. In contrasting backlines, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton saw to that. If South Africa had Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks, age 26) and Morné Steyn (Stade Francais, age 33) it might have been a proper contest.

The ball would have been put into space, the centres would have carried at pace, from deceptive angles. Elton Jantjies is an average club player, no more.

Depth of talent

That’s for the Springboks to solve. We have our own cyclical issues.

They probably won’t be evident throughout November but we have been here before. We climbed to number two in the world two years out from a World Cup back in 2005 and 2009. In 2013 we came within a secured ruck ball of beating the All Blacks.

The depth of talent in crucial positions coupled with inefficient use of resources proved our undoing in 2007, 2011 and to some extent at the 2015 World Cup.

We all know this, and have done so for a very long time. It’s why the IRFU began copying other nations, following the rules of this lopsided “global” sport, by recruiting multiple players via the three-year residency law.

They are just following the rules in a very clever manner. No other nation has brought in players with impact like CJ Stander, Jared Payne and Bundee Aki.

That’s smart business. But at what cost?

Now, what I do know with certainty, is myself and Johnny could both hit Coenie Oosthuizen on the gainline a thousand times and we are not putting the 20 stone prop on his behind. I had 83 Tests to make that sort of tackle. Never happened.

No Irish centre is delivering Bundee Aki’s introduction to international rugby and passing the HIA that follows.

The narrative around Bundee’s selection was incredibly unfair. Plain wrong in many instances. I’m actually happier with him for not trying to belt out Amhrán na bhFiann (which is not even the anthem of a quarter of the players in the squad). He’s a Kiwi of proud Samoan heritage.

Could we have turned Tadhg Furlong into an inside centre, capable of replicating the Bundee Aki tackle, if coached to play there from age 11? Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Could we have turned Tadhg Furlong into an inside centre, capable of replicating the Bundee Aki tackle, if coached to play there from age 11? Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Aki can rightly call Irish people hypocrites. What about all the men and women who left this island to seek a temporary homes in another country, who assimilated to their cultures yet refused to relinquish their Irishness, who became US citizens to protect their families by securing employment? These people took some horrendous abuse yet some of them were accepted as part of the society they landed into, and in many cases improved (we are hardly saints).

Bundee Aki has been in the Irish system since 2014. He’s already a living legend in Connacht and Ireland are only going to benefit from his presence on the field. Same goes for Stander, and slightly less so Payne (due to injury).

Foreign recruitment

Immigration, the movement of labour and people globally, is at its highest since the industrial revolution. Yes, Aki was recruited on a contract, he’s now on his second deal, but he also had to move over here, to bring or initially leave his family behind. He’s a professional.

People move for work all the time. The idea that you have to be born in a country to consider yourself part of the country is just plain wrong.

Now, there is a concern about recruiting so many players under the residency rule and foreign recruitment in general.

Why are the IRFU signing off on so many project players when these large salaries could have gone into finding, nurturing and producing more Tadhg Furlongs?

That is my concern is all of this.

Could we have turned Furlong into an inside centre, capable of replicating the Aki tackle, if coached to play there from age 11? Tadhg certainly has the raw skills to play anywhere.

There have been improvements but how much work, and I mean coaching, are happening at grassroots to ensure multiple scrumhalves, outhalves, all specialist positions are readied for the professional game.

Whatever is being done is not enough. Not while Munster under Erasmus still needed to recruit two South African project players, one of whom has just served a drugs ban, to fill gaping holes in secondrow stocks.

The Academy systems are still under review. Jacob Stockdale and Darren Sweetnam are the low hanging fruit; clear as day talent but Ulster and Munster have not held up their end of the player producing bargain.

Hence the flood of South Africans and Kiwis to solve failings in their senior squads.

Also, we know players develop at different stages but there isn’t enough investment going into the club game in Ireland to give such players a clear route into the system proper.

The IRFU are aware of this so maybe the work has improved significantly since I retired. If so I’m yet to see proof.

Playing by the rules

The project player comes through because he is better than home grown talent. The IRFU are just playing by the rules. Why not focus on ensuring Irish players are good enough? Forget the end result. My point is the processes are not in place to develop enough Irish born players ahead of a constant reliance on recruiting project players.

The crossroads we arrive at – ahead of the three year residency law becoming five years – is to either dig deeper into the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, South Africa and recruit project players two years younger or look within this country, tap into talented athletes in amateur codes (the organisation at GAA clubs on a weekend morning is light years ahead of rugby). Offer the level of coaching from mini-rugby up to teenagers that tempts them away from other sports with a clear pathway, armed with a skill set, to protect the future competitiveness of Irish rugby.

And get us to a bloody World Cup semi-final in 2019 and beyond.

Philip Browne stated 18 months ago that the IRFU must focus on developing talent born in this country, must broaden our horizons beyond the private schools, must dig deep into the soil to keep up with wealthier French and English clubs.

Let’s see the strategy then. How much funding goes into underage rugby in this country? How is it spent? How much private funding pays for our elite players? Show us the figures. How wealthy is the IRFU?

Financial transparency has never been their modus operandi. Modern elite sport elsewhere demands it.

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