On this side of the pond we can easily turn our noses up at it: the Magners League is enjoying unprecedented good press, boosted no doubt by the inclusion of 27 of its players on 2009 British and Irish Lions. Its credibility has soared, but despite all that the Premiership has become a very attractive and, for some, lucrative destination for Irish players down through the years – particularly those in search of reviving stalled careers.
Ever since the advent of professionalism in August 1995, England and many of its cash-rich clubs provided a home for those intent on making a career out of rugby. The first exodus, however, happened out of necessity more than anything else. When the game went open, a conservative element within the IRFU was slow to embrace the idea of professional provincial contracts. The All Ireland League (AIL) may have been booming as a competition here, but it wasn’t professional and the flight of Irish rugby’s first wild geese over the first 12 months of professionalism initiated this country’s love-affair with the Premiership.
David Corkery moved to Bristol in the summer of 1996, describing the quality of rugby as “superb”; that it was like playing an international every week given the number of test players in England. In essence, it was a paradise for aspiring young professionals like the Cork Con man.
“I left in May 1996, at the end of the Irish club season. There was nobody in the IRFU suggesting I stay. I didn’t think that was strange because there was no talk of anybody being offered anything by the union, and if there was I would have been included because I got Irish player of the tournament in the World Cup in South Africa in 1995. I was in the shop window.”
He examined offers from London Irish and Harlequins but, in the end, opted for Bristol. “The deal was good: £50,000 and a Ford Probe, which was a nice little trinket. I had a beautiful apartment on the river that I shared with Paul Burke. I was coming from working in an insurance brokerage and then all of a sudden I’m handed a new standard of living. To get paid for doing something you loved, it was just incredible.”
Gradually the IRFU got their house in order, providing contracts to keep Ireland’s best at home while efforts were also made to entice the likes of Corkery and David Humphreys, who had moved to London Irish, to return to Ulster.
Others stayed and prospered. Keith Wood, despite taking the option of a one-year sabbatical with Munster (1999-2000), eked out a good living with Harlequins. Darragh O’Mahony, despite overtures from the IRFU, remained in England with Saracens, while current Ireland full-back Geordan Murphy started his love-affair with Leicester Tigers in 1997, one which lasts to this day.
Perhaps Murphy’s case-study is proof that there is life outside the Irish provincial system – although a perception co-exists that he had to work that bit harder than his peers who eked out a living in Ireland, for international recognition.
Murphy’s Leicester, in fact, became an important stopping-point for many of Ireland’s brightest, overtaking London Irish as the proverbial fifth province. Eric Miller and Murphy started the trend and, ahead of the 06-07 season, there were eight Irish Tigers on the books at Welford Road, amongst them Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings, both important cogs in Leinster’s Heineken Cup semi-final tomorrow, but who looked across the Irish Sea to revive their careers in 2005.
Johne Murphy is another who might never have earned a contract in Ireland. Spotted by Tigers’ scout, Dusty Hare, in 2006, the less-heralded of the two Murphys at Leicester, is a squad regular and at the centre of the Tigers’ quest for domestic and European honours. He is likely to be on Kidney’s two-Test tour of Canada and the US and stay for the Churchill Cup.
With room on the IRFU books for just 120 professionals spread across the four Irish provinces – although that number is expected to come down because of the credit crunch – many Irish players, like Johne Murphy, felt compelled to go looking for a contract across the Irish Sea, craving first-team action and then seeing that wish fulfilled in England.
Munster, somehow, became a breeding ground for quality scrum-halves during the first couple of years of the new millennium. Peter Stringer looked certain to remain in situ for a good number of years, and those left kicking their heels included Mike Prendergast, Eoin Reddan and Frank Murphy, good pros but not happy to be number two or three or four with their native province.
Reddan didn’t take long to work his way from shadow player at Munster to first choice at Wasps, and then Ireland’s number one pick for over 24 months. Wasps, in many ways, saved his career and propelled him into international reckoning. The club had also done wonders for Johnny O’Connor’s career, though Jeremy Staunton never realised his full potential there.
“Munster management felt it would probably be good for me to go and get some rugby and there were no hard feelings,” says Reddan. “I still get on well with all the management there and I certainly learnt a lot. I learnt a lot from Munster from sitting on the bench. I learnt a lot about being patient, and waiting for your chance.”
Prendergast and Murphy can look back and assess their tenures abroad with a degree of satisfaction. Prendergast spent two seasons at Top 14 side, Bourgoin, before taking a one-year contract at Gloucester in the west Country. He returned to Munster at the start of this season and will be elevated to the replacements tomorrow by the unfortunate absence of Tomás O’Leary.
Frank Murphy rose quickly through the ranks at Leicester Tigers after his move to the Midlands in 2006. He played in three finals in 2007 – an EDF, a Premiership and Heineken – earning plaudits from the hard-to-please English press, who are always amazed that the likes of Reddan and Murphy couldn’t have been accommodated within the IRFU provincial structure. Murphy, however, took up a contract at Connacht at the start of this season.
And there lies the rub? Why has it taken so long for cross-provincial transfers to manifest itself here? Although Corkman Brian O’Meara had possibly bucked the trend in 2000 when he moved from Munster to Leinster, Trevor Hogan and Stephen Keogh swapped Munster for Dublin 4 in the summer of 2006. The Hogan/Keogh transfers initiated a broader practice of players moving around the provinces for the benefit of the individual and province. Niall Ronan, a marginalised figure under Michael Cheika, has prospered since moving south; Ian Keatley and Sean Cronin of Connacht would never have enjoyed as much first-team action had they remained with their home provinces.
Perhaps the most gilded of the wild geese, however, is Trevor Brennan, a god in Toulouse, and someone who was ostracised by Ireland management after his move to the Top 14. In his book Heart and Soul, he wrote that Stade Toulousain were his saviours and, over five years with the famous French club, his legend grew, winning European Cups in 2003 and 2005. Strangely, he never pulled on an Irish jersey during his time in the south west of France where he was keeping French internationals off the team. At the end of his first season he was voted one of the best back rowers in France on L’Equipe’s team of the 2002-03 season. Players likes Serge Betsen and Olivier Magner were behind him.
Brennan’s story could be termed a cautionary tale for any Irish man considering a move to foreign pastures; can a move abroad jeopardise your Irish place? Today the Irish rugby pro with major ambition seeks reassurances from the Irish coach of the day if doubts persist around his Ireland chances should he move abroad. Tommy Bowe, for instance, sought out Eddie O’Sullivan for advice when Ospreys came knocking on his door in early 2008. But as this season has proved the move to the Principality hasn’t been detrimental to his Ireland (or Lions) chances. And Declan Kidney appears to have an open mind on those wishing to ply their trade in England.
Today, as in 1997 and 98, the IRFU are cranking up efforts to bring more of the rugby diaspora home. Reddan and Mike Ross will move to Leinster this summer.
Ross’ story is another one of those tales where a player needed English club rugby to start registering on the IRFU radar. For Ross’ progression at “Quins, the IRFU should be penning a big “thank you’ letter to Dean Richards who took a punt on the north Cork man when Munster said he was surplus to requirements in 2006.
Even though the Premiership is over-hyped by Sky, there is no escaping the fact that it can be an attritional and ultra-physical environment. Ross has regularly faced some of the best scrummagers, including a host of 2009 Lions during his two season’s at the Stoop. Euan Murray, Phil Vickery, Carl Hayman, Julian White, Andrew Sheridan all play in the Premiership, and that Ross has established himself amongst that elite is a credit to his drive to succeed.
Perhaps, the prospects of the Irish player in the Premiership, compared to his experiences at home, were best summed up by Frank Murphy a few months after leaving Munster. “People don’t have that view of you as a fringe player at another club when you arrive here,” he said. “There are more games here as well and I’ll get more of a chance.”
He did, and now he, like many others before him, is a better player for it.