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IRFU contracting under the microscope

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Munster's pursuit of Springbok stars begs questions of IRFU stance on Aki

We now live in very interesting times regarding how the IRFU goes about its contracting business. For so long it was generally sweetness and light under David Nucifora’s baton. 

Ireland had accelerated ahead to such an extent that the high-performance boss had no qualms last November rubber-stamping handing the national team’s reins over for the 2020 Six Nations to an assistant coach who has never before run the whole shooting match anywhere. 

It sounded all so rosy: World Cup history, a fond sayonara to Joe Schmidt and then onwards and upwards with Andy Farrell at the helm. Now, though, that outlook isn’t so comforting. 

Ireland bombed at the finals, Schmidt carried on throughout 2019 like a coach who had lost his iron grip the second he announced in November 2018 he would be moving on, while the porous defence that recently left in a combined 15 tries in 160 minutes against England and New Zealand has placed grave question marks over Farrell’s credentials. 

Does he really have the bottle to take Ireland on and have them do better than they did under Schmidt? Only time will tell on that score, but it is interesting how sceptics are already predicting he won’t see his contract through to its World Cup 2023 expiry.

(Continue reading below…)

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Farrell failing would be a massive black mark regarding the Nucifora way and all the succession planning he has been cooking up since 2014. 

Curiously, the Australian was another to be awarded a cushy pre-World Cup contract extension… what is it about the IRFU habitually agreeing to meaty staff contracts before a world finals only to then be left with egg on the face when results fall short of expectation?

Ultimately, Ireland’s four-year World Cup ‘improvement’ under Nucifora’s planning was the All Blacks taking seven minutes longer than Argentina to go 17 early points up in a quarter-final. Ouch!

As regards player contracts, something which Nucifora’s fingerprints are all over, the months ahead will be intriguing for an organisation that raked in record revenues of €84.2million in the last financial year but spent €45.6m on the professional game and was only left with a slender surplus of €3.2m. 

Nucifora’s brief has forever been about driving hard bargains and securing best value for money for an IRFU who are always most interested in their bottom line.

This season heralds somewhat of a lull in negotiations surrounding top-end deals concerning Ireland’s elite centrally contracted contingent. Only Devin Toner, who was axed by Schmidt for the World Cup, and Rob Kearney, who was unsettlingly made to wait until last May to sign his current one-year extension, fall out of contract next summer. 

But it is what will happen in the next layer of contracting that will most catch the eye. Take, for instance, the respective situations brewing at Connacht and Munster. 

Having starting in 23 of his adopted country’s last 29 matches and become a staple of Schmidt’s Test sides since becoming eligible under residency in November 2017, New Zealander Bundee Aki’s status has immeasurably grown since he last put pen to paper on a Connacht extension in October 2016 that is taking him through to summer 2020. 

He is returning to the contracting table emboldened by his much-enhanced CV and feeling very much entitled to a new IRFU funded central contract that comes with all the trimmings attached for top-end players. 

The curiosity, though, is what may happen if he overplays his hand. If he snaps up a more lucrative deal in the UK or on the continent, under current regulations it will spell the end for his Test career as Ireland haven’t selected an overseas-based player in a XV in the 58 Test matches played since Johnny Sexton was still tied to Racing when Scotland were beaten in March 2015.

Contrast this potential sacrificing of Aki’s burgeoning Test career with the power play ongoing at Munster. Damian de Allende, another Test-playing No12, is being courted by Johann van Graan, along with fellow Springbok RG Snyman. 

Nothing has yet been signed, van Grann admitting midweek: “I don’t want to speculate further until there is confirmation of it. We have spoken to both players and we have got big dreams for the squad.”

How odd will it look if Aki is deemed surplus to Ireland requirements due to basing himself abroad, yet de Allende and Snyman could be signed by a province on deals that would allow them to continue to represent South Africa? Very odd is the answer.   

Having won the World Cup with a matchday 23 containing five players who played last season in the English Premiership and another two who were heavily involved in the French Top 14, Rassie Erasmus – van Graan’s predecessor at Munster – has starkly illustrated that you can succeed at Test level with a squad mixture of overseas and home-based players. 

Success in Japan and in the Rugby Championship had laid bare the myth that the best way to succeed at international level is to only select domestically based players. 

With Erasmus shattering the mould and embracing the streetwise smarts that his non-South Africa based contingent have to offer, maybe it is time for the ultra-protectionist IRFU to remove the blinkers and allow incoming boss Farrell to consider selecting overseas-based players for the Ireland Test squad.

What the lifting of restriction would immediately do is put an end to the unruly annual charade that is Irish Test players like Aki often being made to plead Oliver Twist-like at Nucifora’s table because the IRFU stubbornly won’t ever match like for like the salaries available elsewhere.    

As for Munster and their South African flirtation, it’s nothing new. Ever since the unheralded Trevor Halstead played a crucial role in helping the province to its breakthrough European success in 2006, there has always been a fascination with the Africans. 

Jean de Villiers, Gerhard van den Heever, Jaco Taute and Gerbrandt Grobler are just some of the names of varying degrees of success who have been and gone in Limerick since the halcyon Halstead era. 

Of the eight southern hemisphere-born players on their current roster of 45, four are South African, three are Kiwi and one is Australian, but that isn’t to suggest they are overstocked with foreigners. Far from it. 

They instead have ample wriggle room to manoeuvre under IRFU policy and plenty of scope to facilitate the potential arrivals of Allende and Snyman. 

Two of the current eight, Aussie Jed Holloway and All Black Alby Mathewson are only on short-term deals, two of the South Africans – CJ Stander and Jean Kleyn – are Irish capped under residency, and two of the Kiwis – Tyler Bleyendaal and Rhys Marshall – are Irish eligible under residency.

That effectively means there are just two full-time non-Irish qualified slots taken, those filled by the Boks-capped Arno Botha and fellow countryman Chris Cloete, who is a year away from becoming Irish-eligible. 

No wonder van Graan is flirting with two recent World Cup winners and doing whatever it takes to add that missing something which might transform Munster from serial European semi-final losers into an outfit that gets back to the big time of reaching finals and lifting trophies. 

Interesting times, indeed. 

WATCH: The latest episode of Don’t Mess With Jim sees Jim Hamilton discuss South Africa’s World Cup win and Saracens’ salary cap breaches 

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Munster's pursuit of Springbok stars begs questions of IRFU stance on Aki