The following is a guest post by Rory O’Kane.
Ireland’s official rugby anthem Ireland’s Call mentions the four proud provinces of Ireland in its lyrics but fails to mention the Irish Exiles, who have been fundamental to Irish rugby. The Exiles system has provided us with players of the calibre of Simon Geoghegan, Simon Easterby, Rob Henderson and Nick Popplewell. The latter trio were Test Lions, while Geoghegan was touted as a likely Lion prior to injury in 1997.
With Ireland having a relatively small rugby population, Ireland needs the biggest player pool it can possibly get and the Exiles system facilitates the growth of Irish rugby’s player pool.
In recent years the link with the Irish exiles had weakened. Players such as Shane Geraghty, Andrew Sheridan, Nick Kennedy, Paul Doran-Jones (Ireland U19, U21) and Kieran Brookes (Ireland U18, U19, U20) slipped through the net. However, Irish rugby wasn’t overly concerned; after all it was too busy basking in the success of the “golden generation” of 2004-09 with three Triple Crowns, a first Grand Slam in 61 years and the unprecedented success of the provinces at Heineken Cup level.
It took the 2012 scrum fiasco in Twickenham for the IRFU to decide to strengthen the Exile link with the intention of increasing Irish rugby’s player pool and, more particularly, to unearth a few tight-head props. The IRFU have since appointed Mark Blair as the Development Manager for the Irish Exiles, an arm of the IRFU that runs representative sides for Irish-qualified players based in England, Scotland and Wales. He commented upon his appointment:
“This is a full-time IRFU position because they want to work much more closely with the Exiles. We feel we are only scratching the surface of the players in England, Scotland and Wales that are available to play for Ireland.
It is an alternative opportunity and we are not trying to take players away from anywhere else. But we want to offer that choice to young players of being eligible to play for Ireland.
The recession has seen more Irish people move to Britain and we want to give a pathway for young-Irish qualified players to progress their rugby with the possibilities of international rugby and also the chance to move to Ireland.”
The IRFU already appear to be reaping the rewards of utilising their Exile branch again. No less than 7 Exiles being involved with Ireland U20’s this season:
2013 Irish U20 Exiles
Conor Joyce (Ulster Rugby): Solihull-born Joyce down the Leicester Tigers academy to join Ulster last season. The 6ft 3ins blindside/no. 8 has made seven appearances for the U20s this year and has even captained the side against Fiji. He is held in high regard in Ravenhill and even made his Ulster debut against Glasgow in February.
George McGuigan (Newcastle Falcons): Standing at 6ft and 105kg, the hooker has been a mainstay in the no. 2 jersey for Ireland making six U20 appearances. In April, he was rewarded with a one-year contract at Newcastle, despite not having made his Falcons’ debut yet. He has made the first team bench as an unused substitute. McGuigan spent last season on a dual-registration deal with Tynesdale in National League 1.
Ryan Furness (Worcester Warriors): The tighthead prop has been battling Adam Boland and Chris Taylor for the number 3 jersey. Despite regularly making the match day squads in both the Six Nations and JWC he has yet to start. Furness has made two first team appearances for Worcester Warriors.
David Panter (Connacht Rugby): The 5ft 11ins Surrey-born fullback was identified through the Exiles system and signed by the Connacht academy. A former Ireland U18 clubs international, he has made five Ireland U20 appearances and is part of the JWC squad.
Alex Wootton (Northampton Saints): The Saints winger was called up to replace the injured Tom Daly in the current JWC. Wootten was part of Northampton’s squad for the 2012 Premiership 7s. He was capped at U16 level by England. The speedster spent this season on a dual-registration deal at Cambridge. Wootten is eligible for the Ireland U20s again next season.
Jake Caulfield (Ulster Rugby): The 6ft 3ins, 18 stone prop from Western-Supermare spent two seasons in the London Irish academy before joining Bristol for a season. In October of 2012 Ulster signed him on a 3-year contract. He also had a spell in New Zealand with Petone in Wellington. Caulfield is a former England U16 and U17 international and can play both sides of the scrum. He made 1 Ireland U20 appearance vs Wales in the Six Nations.
Alex O’ Meara From the famed Hartpury College, the winger made his single Ireland U20 appearance vs Wales in the Six Nations.
You can follow Rory O’Kane, author of this piece, on Twitter. You can also follow the Irish Exiles on Twitter. For more on Irish players based abroad, click the ‘Exiled Irish’ tab at the top of the page.