Bundee Aki’s debut for Ireland this evening may be controversial but it will soon be a moot point.
New Zealand-born to Samoan parents, the about-to-be Irish international is one of the last of a dying breed. The days of the project player, recruited from overseas with the purpose of qualifying for an adopted country after three years of residency, are numbered.
No more Akis, Jared Paynes, or CJ Standers will be drip-fed into the national squad having served their time in provinces far from their birthplace and heritage. From 2021, World Rugby will extend that qualification period from 36 months to five years and call time on a practice that has long divided opinion.
Joe Lydon, for one, will be happier without such “manufactured” allegiances but he recognises that, regardless of the arguments, countries like Ireland with small indigenous playing pools will have to keep looking beyond its jurisdiction to make up for shortfalls in talent when they arise.
It is Lydon’s job to plug the gaps, not with project players but with the undiscovered offspring of the diaspora. As the IRFU’s Head of International Talent ID and Development, he is the driving force behind the governing body’s new IQ programme, charged with seeking out a new generation of Irish-qualified athletes who may be able to do a job for the mother country.
IQ was launched last May, soon after World Rugby changed its residency rule and for Lydon, 53, it is something of a vocation as well as a professional appointment.
The former Wigan and Great Britain rugby league icon with grandparents from Galway, who has held similar developmental positions in Wales and England, must plan for the post-project player era.
“I sat down with (IRFU performance director) David Nucifora (last November) and we talked long and hard about what the potential is, and not just the UK. We looked around the changes around the time-serving element of qualification (through residency) from three years to five years, which is not being effective or efficient really, not least of all because you’re taking a player who’s not qualified through birth or ancestry and you’re manufacturing a player to play for your country, which has never really sat well with me, and I think a lot of other people.
“It’s obviously fantastic if you’ve got an abundance of players that are born in the country that they’re playing for. That’s sometimes not the case when you have a smaller playing population but it is important to me, including my own family heritage, that you have some connection and more importantly a desire to be playing for that country as opposed to manufactured players.
“So we talked about developing that and what it might be like and even what it might be called. Do we replace what is there or do we enhance it and we decided to enhance. We gave birth to the term ‘IQ’, Irish Qualified, and thought about strategy, how we might progress it, including new markets like America, where we might look for athletes, as well as the established places that we know.”
With IQ’s Regional Talent coaches Kevin Maggs and Wayne Mitchell, Lydon wants to widen the network, targeting players, male and female, from the ages of 16 and 17. The register currently numbers 1,200, 200 of which the IRFU man considers have the potential to progress beyond Ireland’s underage team into the professional ranks or that are already pros.
“If I stay true to what I believe in, then it comes down to two things. One, giving an opportunity for people who are not getting it, either with their club or school and then two, them wanting to do it, wanting to play for Ireland and in Ireland.
“I don’t want to be persuading or kidnapping athletes to get them across. We’re about identifying players, athletes, students, people, and seeing their desire to do this for themselves and then seeing what the opportunities are to further development and hopefully maximise potential if they have it.”
Lydon cites Munster’s recent signing from Sale Sharks, the former England Under-20 prop Ciaran Parker, as an example of the system at work.
“Ciaran was sitting on the bench for two years. He’d played England Under-20s and I knew him when I was working within the RFU system.
“He was a little bit frustrated and possibly you might say the club was (frustrated) with him as well. He probably hadn’t fulfilled his potential, though you could argue that was through a lack of opportunity. So putting him in Munster and having spoken to the club and Steve Diamond, but through the agent mainly, they were happy to release him from his contract and say ‘go and take the opportunity’.”
Munster also has Sammy Arnold, who reached the Ulster academy via Cranleigh School in Surrey, and Alex Wootton, who came from Northampton Saints having played for Ireland’s Under-18s and 20s.
“There’s seven players who are Irish qualified who played on a provincial tour with the Exiles club this summer and last weekend played for Ireland U18s against Portugal. And we’d like to think that we enhanced their opportunity by them playing with the Exiles under the IQ banner. They beat all four provinces, luckily I might add.
“Then a couple of lads, including James McCarthy, now playing in Munster, and Kieran Dunne, also at Munster, played that summer tour and then played with the Sevens over in Germany with Anthony Eddy.”
It is a two-way deal, for as Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt remarked last week, some of the project players he has capped have offered more buy-in to the cause than perhaps the Granny rule players of the past, the 70-cap Maggs being one of the exceptions.
“I think it’s a valid point,” Lydon said. “Those are the conversations around the start, you know, have they committed to play for Ireland? You also have to remember it’s a professional sport, it’s a job.
“So when they commit to something it’s normally for financial reasons, first and foremost, not for anything else.
“We understand that, so we have conversations to make sure these people either want to play for, or in Ireland and then about how that might work. So I agree with Joe Schmidt wholeheartedly.
“In my rugby league career I went across and played in Australia for two summers and it wasn’t for my love of Australia, it was the financial factor, you know, how that might enhance my rugby career and my bank balance. I totally get it. I think it’s very, very individual but the more we do this I think the more we’ll find those stats changing as people find an opportunity to have a contract due to their Irish heritage and not just because of that contractual status.”
So how will Lydon measure the success of IQ? He believes there are currently 25 to 30 players, male and female, who would fit in on national age-group squads and “six or seven” that could one day represent Ireland’s men or women at Test level.
Yet the answer is not all about getting players into provinces and then into a green jersey.
“You could also argue legitimately that success is getting nobody in the programme because if they don’t get in, then it means Irish-born players are doing a fantastic job.”
In the meantime, Lydon will continue to offer opportunities to the rugby-playing diaspora.
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