Gath­er­ing sham­rock on for­eign fields

The IRFU have be­come much more proac­tive about un­earthing Ire­land-qual­i­fied play­ers

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SPORT | RUGBY - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

ON a pleas­ant June af­ter­noon in Syd­ney in 1994, we ended up at a lo­cal derby be­tween Rand­wick and Easts. Ire­land were tour­ing Aus­tralia at the time, and a gap in that sched­ule was hap­pily filled by spin­ning over to Coogee Oval, home to one of the world’s most fa­mous clubs.

It was qual­ity stuff, with Rand­wick out-half David Knox — long be­fore be brought his za­ni­ness to Le­in­ster, as a coach — pulling the strings and mag­i­cally avoid­ing hav­ing a hand laid on him. One of the grunts de­tailed to get be­tween him and any con­tact was a sec­ond row called Owen Fine­gan.

The pro­tec­tor did much more than ride shot­gun. In fact, he was able to do a whole bunch of tricks un­known to any Ir­ish sec­ond row at the time, so when we got back to the team ho­tel we men­tioned to the Ire­land coach Gerry Mur­phy about this class act with the Ir­ish name. Surely he had to be qual­i­fied?

Mur­phy was so busy at the time try­ing to keep his tourists off high stools and on mes­sage that ex­plor­ing the genealogy of some Syd­ney club player was not an item he wanted to add to his agenda.

The frus­trat­ing thing was that none of the less busy folks who paid Mur­phy’s wages were both­ered ei­ther. If the coach was un­der the cosh then oth­ers in the IRFU were un­der the im­pres­sion that our re­sources were fine as they were. The no­tion of reel­ing in some of the diaspora from the south­ern hemi­sphere was, to them, bizarre.

In fair­ness to them, in the late 1980s they had set up, at the be­hest of Tommy Kier­nan, an Ex­iles op­er­a­tion across the wa­ter. John Hunter was their man on the ground in Eng­land and over the years he wore out a lot of shoe leather in the cause. But the union had no ap­petite to look fur­ther afield. They had been burned in the run-up to the 1991 World Cup when an­other Aussie, Brian Smith — a man with much less re­li­able Ir­ish an­ces­try than rock-solid Fine­gan — bug­gered off hav­ing hitched his wagon to Le­in­ster and Ire­land while study­ing in Ox­ford. Per­haps that put them off.

Un­wit­tingly, the IRFU had a point though. What­ever about lads just across the wa­ter, why would the likes of Fine­gan, part of an Aussie sys­tem that al­ready was look­ing af­ter its play­ers and pre-empt­ing the of­fi­cial ar­rival of pro­fes­sion­al­ism, want to jump ship to the land that time for­got?

There was a touch of irony then when even­tu­ally Fine­gan fetched up on these shores as hired help. It was with Le­in­ster, in 2006, on a one-year deal. He had been in his prime when win­ning a World Cup medal with the Wal­la­bies in 1999. On ar­rival in Dublin he was so far past that point that some of his new col­leagues chris­tened him Owen Nev­er­fita­gain.

You’ll be re­as­sured to know that, as we speed into the 22nd sea­son of pro­fes­sional rugby, the IRFU is di­al­ing up the diaspora in the way the youth of Ire­land call Boo­jum for their Mex­i­can food fix.

A year ago they launched the ap­pro­pri­ately ti­tled IQ pro­gramme — as in, Ire­land Qual­i­fied. Joe Ly­don, a rugby league le­gend with a load of ex­pe­ri­ence of devel­op­ment jobs in both codes, is rid­ing point on this. So he would have been es­pe­cially pleased with the per­for­mance of Alex Woot­ton in Thomond Park last week­end.

One try in Cork the pre­vi­ous week was a de­cent start to the PRO14 for the 23-yearold. Adding an­other four in Lim­er­ick was stel­lar stuff, even against dodgy op­po­si­tion in the Chee­tahs.

“We were pretty pleased ob­vi­ously,” Ly­don says. “It’s good for the play­ers them­selves; it’s good for their links and con­nec­tions; and it’s good pro­pa­ganda for lads who, whether they’re in the English sys­tem or the Scot­tish sys­tem or fur­ther afield around the world, they now know there’s a path­way. There’s a way they can take to play at the high­est level in Ire­land and for Ire­land.

“Woot­ton’s a good ex­am­ple. There are other play­ers as well in the prov­inces at var­i­ous lev­els and have got an op­por­tu­nity, which is one of our ma­jor fo­cuses. It’s great to see tal­ent and it’s great to see the tal­ent com­ing to Ire­land but it’s about giv­ing them op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Ly­don has for­mer in­ter­na­tional Kevin Maggs and Wayne Mitchell, who pre­vi­ously was on Le­in­ster’s devel­op­ment staff, for com­pany — work­ing off a net­work that started with the for­ma­tion of the Ex­iles and has con­tin­ued and grown. Ly­don says there are circa 240 names of Ire­land-qual­i­fied play­ers in the UK alone.

The mo­dus operandi is to or­gan­ise re­gional tri­als across the wa­ter and then get prospec­tive can­di­dates over here to Na­tional Tal­ent Squad camps, and from there to place lads in Ir­ish pro­vin­cial acad­e­mies or sub-acad­e­mies. And if those doors don’t open then mon­i­tor them where they are with a view to them pos­si­bly com­ing into the sys­tem at a later date, as with Connacht’s James Mitchell.

The fruits of these labours were pre­sented in the shape of the Ex­iles un­der 18 side that played the Le­in­ster Youth side in Don­ny­brook a few weeks ago. Three things were ev­i­dent: first, not un­usu­ally, the phys­i­cal ad­van­tage en­joyed by the Ex­iles; sec­ond their skill level and or­gan­i­sa­tion; and third the spirit and to­geth­er­ness of the group. They also had the best player on the field, a scrum-half called Caolan En­gle­field, of Har­lequins, who has al­ready played for the Ire­land un­der 18 side.

But what about hos­til­ity from Eng­land’s club acad­e­mies who are spon­sored by the RFU? When the game went pro the Ex­iles’ foot-sol­diers found it a good deal harder to get past the gate. Ly­don says that po­si­tion has soft­ened.

“We find more and more clubs are happy to work with us to sup­port the player. If they’re go­ing to stay true to their prin­ci­ples of de­vel­op­ing the tal­ent they have then any op­por­tu­nity such as the NTS camps in Ire­land is worth send­ing lads across for.”

And the swathe of Fine­gans in the south­ern hemi­sphere? Is there a sys­tem in place to source them?

“Def­i­nitely,” Ly­don says. “We have a small team of peo­ple that are IQ, as in staff, who are ded­i­cated to iden­ti­fy­ing and sup­port­ing tal­ent, but we’re broad­en­ing our hori­zons. We have friends and con­tacts in most of the ma­jor rugby na­tions, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia. We have IRFU staff who are South African or Aus­tralian, so those net­works are grow­ing and we in­tend to make sure we can for­malise those agree­ments. We want to cap­ture tal­ent and to have eyes who can go and look at that lo­cal tal­ent, male or fe­male, to see how good they are. It’s great to get footage but it’s even bet­ter if you have some­body on the ground who can go and watch them. We’re find­ing more and more of those.”

The shift from three years’ res­i­dency to five years in World Rugby’s Test qual­i­fi­ca­tion pe­riod has given im­pe­tus to this search for the right blood­lines. Clearly we’re be­hind the curve, but at least mov­ing. Per­haps Joe Ly­don might give Owen Fine­gan a job as a scout.

‘We have friends and con­tacts in most ma­jor rugby na­tions’

‘One try in Cork the pre­vi­ous week was a de­cent start to the PRO14 for Alex Wooton. Adding an­other four in Lim­er­ick (above) was stel­lar stuff, even against dodgy op­po­si­tion in the Chee­tahs’

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