Luke Fitzgerald: IRFU’s special project player policy is simply wrong

Luke Fitzgerald has taken a vocal stance against the IRFU’s policy of recruiting ‘special project’ players to the detriment of native Irish players’ international chances.

Luke Fitzgerald: IRFU’s special project player policy is simply wrong

The former Leinster centre was speaking in promotion of Sky Sports’ autumn coverage of Irish provincial and international rugby when quizzed for his thoughts on the policy, which has seen a number of foreign-born players capped for Ireland in recent years, including New Zealander Jared Payne and South African CJ Stander.

Specifically, Fitzgerald was asked how he would feel if he was wearing the boots of burgeoning stars like Leinster pair Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose in the context of them competing for a national jersey against the likes of Connacht’s Bundee Aki, who is set to become eligible to play for Ireland in the near future.

“I think it’s wrong… I deliberately have given a short answer, I think it’s wrong,” said Fitzgerald before elaborating on his point.

“I know that’s controversial [his opinion], but... and it’s no reflection on those [foreign-born] guys, they’re doing everything within the rules, I’d like to see Irish guys in there. Are we not good enough to fill the spots? I don’t know if there’s a big enough gap between Irish guys and those guys to really justify it?

“Garry [Ringrose] looks an awesome player to me, Robbie [Henshaw] is a brilliant player, Stuart Olding, Luke Marshall, Johnny Sexton’s still our best player - he’s an Irish guy. Seán O’Brien – they’re all Irish, Cian Healy, Jack McGrath – loads of great players.

“I don’t know if being born in a different part of the world makes you a better player. I think they’re probably better than us, but if they’re not making those international teams, why would we be taking them? Is that an admission we’re not as good as them, I’m sure it is,” added the 29-year-old, who previously would have been in direct competition with Payne, who was born and raised in New Zealand, for an Ireland starting berth before Fitzgerlad’s retirement.

When asked if the introduction of a number of ‘special project’ players could eventually upset the balance or morale of the national side, Fitzgerald claimed it is more likely to irritate individual players as opposed to the team or squad.

“Would it affect me if there was a guy from another place getting picked ahead of me? I’ve been in that spot, and it does - it pisses you off, definitely,” said Fitzgerald.

“You’ve come all the way up through the internationals, you’ve done all the work through the system, and then all of a sudden some guy comes in and is perceived to be ‘better’ because he’s from a different place, and it’s [an attitude of], ‘let’s get this guy in’. I think it’s really disappointing,” added the former Leinster star.

Former Argentina scrum-half Agustin Pichot, who is now World Rugby vice- chairman, caused a stir during the summer when he called for the three-year residency law to be extended to five years in order to limit the number of players moving to different national sides.

And Fitzgerald said: “I think he has a really good point. It really dilutes it for me - I mean what’s the point? It’s like a Barbarians side against Barbarians, why do that? I don’t understand that.

“It diminishes it for me, now I’m a supporter/spectator, I can say that. I much rather see the Irish team against the New Zealand team, or whoever it may be.

“I want to get it across that it’s no reflection on the [foreign-born] guys who are operating within the rules. I’d just much rather see full Irish guys in there,” added Fitzgerald, who said he was willing to openly discuss the topic following his retirement, having taken up a role as a pundit with Sky Sports.

“It’s a sticky spot - I wasn’t going to say anything but I’m allowed to give my opinion now,” said the 29-year-old, who has backed former team-mate Johnny Sexton to return to be in full health for Ireland’s autumn Tests against New Zealand.

Sexton was taken off after 40 minutes of Leinster’s European loss to Montpellier last weekend as he continues to recover from a hamstring niggle.

“I think it was smart [to take him off against Montpellier, but] I think it’s really hard for Leinster,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s pretty tough if you’re the Leinster coach to say, ‘Johnny’s going to come off after 40 [minutes]’.

“[But] for me, I think it’s a smart move from Joe’s [Schmidt’s] perspective - especially with a soft tissue [injury] and you’re coming back from that pretty quickly. Managing that makes a lot of sense to me,” added the 29-year-old.

  • Sky Sports pundits Gordon D’Arcy and Luke Fitzgerald were promoting a huge autumn of Irish rugby coverage on Sky Sports, where viewers can watch the ERC Cup, Guinness Pro12 and Guinness Series all in one place. Customers can upgrade to Sky Sports now for just €25 a month for 6 months by searching ‘Sky Sports Offer.’

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