Stander and Fardy’s exit signals a changing of Irish import guard
This summer marks a watershed moment in the role of ‘project players’ in Irish rugby
Scott Fardy: played 76 times over four seasons for Leinster. “Fards is a competitive animal, he doesn’t like losing,” says Guy Easterby. “He’s added so much in terms of mindset and not taking a backward step.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
CJ Stander and Scott Fardy will ride off into the sunset with their legacies assured; Marcel Coetzee will leave some big shoes to fill at Ulster and the provinces have been shopping selectively.
This summer marks something of a watershed in the role of NIQs, Non-Irish Qualified, and ‘project’ players.
Whereas Ulster’s acquisition of Leone Nakarawa initially inspired shock and awe, and Leinster’s signing of Michael Alalaatoa has been interpreted as shrewd business. The howls of criticism which greeted the impending arrival of Jason Jenkins at Munster almost bordered on xenophobia.
It didn’t help that, simultaneously, Munster were releasing home-grown players JJ Hanrahan and Darren Sweetnam, claiming they were in part due to financial reasons when, ostensibly, they were rugby decisions.
“Not another South African lock,” was the general reaction. Think Gerbrandt Grobler, Jean Kleyn and RG Snyman. Yet Johann van Graan insists that Jenkins has been signed in large part to fill the void left by Stander’s retirement.
“He’s coming in as a ball-carrying backrower first and foremost. We cannot say for definite that he will not play at lock. If Fineen [Wycherley] and Thomas Ahern are injured, and Thomas is injured at the moment, Jason may have to slot in there at some stage.
“But first and foremost he’s been signed as a ball-carrying backrower, which we believe is what we need going forward to carry us through. Jason is an experienced player, who has played Super Rugby, in Japan once for the Springboks, and will be a huge help to the younger players.”
With RG Snyman nearly fit again, Munster sure look well stocked at lock, so if Jenkins will predominantly be a backrower, he can share the ball carrying duties with Gavin Coombes, Stander’s heir apparent.
Next season 17 per cent of Munster’s squad will be from overseas, similar to the glory days of, say, 2005-06, when the comparative figure was 26 per cent, and Trevor Halstead, Shaun Payne, Federico Pucciariello and Jeremy Manning were part of the breakthrough Heineken Cup win. Likewise in 2007-08, when Doug Howlett, Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi and Paul Warwick two years later.
Munster also point out that 68 per cent of next season’s squad will be home-grown, while back in 2005-06 that was 71 per cent, rising to 76 per cent in 2007-08, albeit this doesn’t include those initially developed in other provinces.
“We needed to bring in some world-class players to take us to the next level,” says Guy Easterby, whose remit as Leinster’s head of rugby operations includes much of Leinster’s recruitment and succession planning.
“As time has gone by that’s become less and less. When the project player was brought in that changed the way we looked at it. But the five-year residency has changed that again and now, for your pure overseas player, you’re looking at someone who is going to add value and leadership, particularly through those times when our internationals are away. Isa [Nacewa] was probably the classic example of that.”
Of course, even Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger made their share of mistakes, and Leinster themselves have not been immune to the odd error.
Steven Sykes signed from the Sharks on a three-year deal but, troubled by injuries and adapting, played four times before returning home. Kane Douglas also returned to Australia less than a year into a three-year deal, citing homesickness and family issues.
“It’s a more specialised market now with the five-year residency ruling,” says the former Leinster and Irish winger Niall Woods, now with the Navy Blue agency.
“When agents from abroad might contact me now it’s usually on behalf of players who have Irish passports or bloodline.”
One such player, Michael Bent, played for Ireland before Leinster but stayed nine seasons and played 155 times for the province, and was the scrummaging rock around which much of the last four Pro14 titles was based.
Cue the signing of Alalaatoa, a 29-year-old Crusaders and Samoan tight-head, to fill the void when Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter are on Irish duty, and perhaps even when those two are resting up after the Lions tour.
“Michael will also help our younger props to develop. We have to carefully manage their progress. We want Tom Clarkson to stay here for at least another ten or 12 years. Michael’s signing is to help that happen,” stresses Easterby.
They’ve tended to plump for one marquee signing, such as Charles Piatau – who became too expensive to keep – and Coetzee, who was cruelly unlucky with injuries but still became a totemic figure.
The 33-year-old Nakarawa has looked a pale shadow of the European Player of the Year of five seasons ago in his second spell with Glasgow, so Ulster may have to repeat a Nick Williams-like resurrection.
Then there’s also the legacy piece. No less than Nacewa, Fardy has left his.
“Fards is a competitive animal, he doesn’t like losing,” says Easterby. “He’s added so much in terms of mindset and not taking a backward step.”
“They [NIQs] have to add value,” says Easterby, and none did more than Nacewa. “I still get emotional thinking about Isa playing his last game against the Scarlets in the Pro14 final when he was barely able to walk. There’s hardly a day, or certainly a week, when his name isn’t mentioned.”
There’s been way more hits than misses, and he’s the supreme overseas signing of them all.
Hits and Misses
Consistently durable performer and leader, playing 76 times over his four seasons with the province. Worth every penny.
The 29-year-old has blossomed with Leinster (100 caps) and established himself in the Irish team. A prime example of how the project player formula worked.
Arrived as a game breaking signing – cue a strike rate of 34 tries in 50 games. He’s had defensive issues at Test level but at 28 has time to learn. Still a huge hit by any yardstick.
Improved after an uneven start, punctuated by defensive blips, but injuries restricted the 17-times capped Wallaby to 21 appearances before his moving on to Japan last year.
Only started three games in his first season but justified Anthony Foley’s faith in him to play 150 times in nine seasons, regularly captaining the side, picking up man of the match gongs and plundering tries (42 in all), plus 50 caps for Ireland (12 tries) and a Grand Slam. Munster’s best ever overseas signing.
Fulfilled his brief after three years’ residency and not his fault that Joe Schmidt preferred him to Devin Toner for the World Cup. One of the few who took the fight to Leinster in the Pro14 final, and a consistent and physical performer in 86 games for the province.
Damian de Allende
A high-calibre, World Cup-winning signing, Munster could have got more out of him in 20 games to date but there was evidence against Toulouse that he could still be exactly what they’re looking for.
Despite some very dynamic displays he fell down the pecking order at hooker, a revolving door, and at 28 is being released by the province. Still, he played 80 times in five seasons.
Jury Still Out
It wasn’t this Springbok World Cup winner’s fault that his Munster career has been so far confined to seven minutes – more his lifters! Nearing a return in time for the Lions tour to South Africa, only time will tell.
Restricted to just four appearances in his first two seasons but has played over 50 games since. Carries, line breaks, tries, offloads, big tackles and turnovers galore. Generally their talisman; released early to join the Bulls.
The 34-year-old leaves at the end of the season, but in seven years has been a versatile and consistent performer, making 112 appearances.
The 35-year-old, four-times capped ex-All Blacks’ scrumhalf proved an able back-up and occasional stand-in for John Cooney before moving on at the end of the season. Did what it said on the tin..
The 29-year-old Kiwi’s versatility has seen him play 26 times in his two seasons with the province to date, scoring nine tries, before moving on in the summer. A qualified success.
Jury Still Out
A dislocated shoulder has limited the 31-year-old, 15-times capped Wallaby lock to just 15 starts in two seasons. Even so, he’s captained the side on occasion and has been re-signed for another two years.
Connacht’s biggest marquee signing of the transformative Pat Lam era has remained loyal through eight talismanic seasons, and counting. Contributed hugely to the 2016 Pro12, and the 2018 Grand Slam, and adored by young Connacht fans. Perhaps their best signing – period.
The Aussie, 29, has played 70 games in four seasons. Smart, strong, all-round back-rower whose leadership is such that he succeeded John Muldoon as captain. ’Nuff said.
Signed by Joe Schmidt and regarded as a miss at Leinster but an undoubted hit with Connacht. The 30-year-old lock has made 106 appearances in eight seasons (and 16 caps for Ireland), his physicality and scrummaging makes them a better side when he plays. Loves Galway and Connacht, but hasn’t signed a new deal yet.
The 26-year-old fullback, coached by Andy Friend with the Aussie 7s, has started 33 of 36 games in two seasons, playing the most minutes of any Connacht player this season. Natural footballer, aerially excellent and a strong runner, and signed on for next season.
In his fifth season, the 27-year-old from New Zealand has played 63 games and has another season remaining on his most recent extension.
Jury Still Out
A knee injury and adapting to 15s has restricted the ex-7s utility back to just four appearances. “Benny is a beautiful footballer,” according to Friend.
A red card on his debut and another against Zebre last October (leading to a five-game ban), so just ten games (five starts) so far. There have been glimpses of the 27-year-old’s powerful carrying but his longest stint has been 53 minutes.