The Mole expected to see the ill wind of protectionism blow in 2011 but didn’t think that it would happen in the market for tighthead props.
Ireland’s move to professionalism has been documented by Fangio in the book From There to Here and when all is said and done, it’s been a successful transition. The Mole grew up in an era where England would turn up, plamas Ireland about “the passion” then annihilate us. Since their World Cup victory it’s been seven wins out of eight during the Six Nations and the country gets disappointed when we “only” win a Triple Crown. Where’s your effing pride, indeed?
However, the real winners have been the provinces. The Mole’s commented before on how international tickets seem to be held in trust through the generations for a particular set of Irish supporters. The Heineken Cup has made big match rugby accessible to a new audience, both at grounds and on the TV. The tournament has not suffered by being broadcast on Sky. In fact, as with most sports coverage, Sky’s professionalism and attention to detail has made other broadcasters raise their game. The popularity of the Heineken Cup in Ireland owes something to the fact that the fact that the games act as great social occasions and provide an opportunity to travel to interesting destinations. The main feel good factor has been provided by the provinces’ success. Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell are household names and rugby’s profile has risen hugely. That higher profile has allowed the IRFU to countenance and accomplish the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road, Thomond Park and the RDS. Rugby was played in Croke Park and the GAA would have them back. All is changed, and most of it positive.
The success of the Irish provinces has been bulwarked by some shrewd overseas signings. True, there have been some turkeys – Tony Goldfinch anyone? – but there’s been more positives than negatives. The Mole has selected his best import XV of the professional and amateur eras here.
The IRFU’s move limits the number of Non Irish Eligible (NIE) players to one per position, spread across the three provinces. This is an Irish solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The provinces compete against each other and against clubs that are capable of signing whomever they want, particularly the big French clubs. Restricting the provinces ability to compete does not seem in the best interests of Irish rugby. This decision raises a number of questions about the IRFU’s role in relation to the provinces, the national team, revenues raised and expenditures paid out.
How this plan is administered has yet to be finessed but it brings rugby politics and the back office too close to the pitch for the Mole to be comfortable. The IRFU seem only to be viewing one scenario in the future: that increased game time at provincial level will produce more players capable of playing successful international rugby for Ireland. While that’s commendable, it’s not inevitable, and this is a risky move that may have unintended consequences.