The IRFU will implement changes to NIE player contracts from 2013/14 onwards. (c) José Ramón Vega
With the dust now settling on the IRFU’s announcement of changes to the manner in which NIE (Non-Irish Eligible) players are contracted to Leinster, Munster and Ulster, it’s worthwhile taking a look at what these changes actually involve and how they may affect the provinces when they come into effect for the 2013/2014 season. The IRFU have announced that Connacht will be external to this process.
The IRFU’s reasoning behind the changes is to ensure that Irish eligible players will be gaining valuable Heineken Cup and PRO12 experience in every position across the field. This will have obvious benefits for the international squad, ensuring that Ireland will have a degree of depth and competition in every position on the field. The measures have been designed with the aim of having at least “two suitably experienced players” Irish players in each position.
The new principles mean that across the squads of Leinster, Munster and Ulster there will only be one NIE player for each of the 15 positions on the field. The prime example to use here is the current situation at tighthead pro. Indeed, these new measures seem to have been motivated in part by the lack of experienced Irish tightheads. Currently there are 4 NIE tightheads contracted to Munster (BJ Botha and Pete Borlaise), Ulster (John Afoa) and Leinster (Nathan White). These players are obviously preventing Irish eligible players from gaining experience in the Heineken Cup and the PRO12.
Botha (middle) is one of 4 NIE tightheads in Ireland at the moment. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.
The new rules mean that from 2013/14 onwards, only one of these players would be allowed to be contracted. The three provinces will have to discuss their potential NIE targets with each other and the IRFU in order to prevent an overlap in NIE players in the same position. Only one of the provinces will be allowed a tighthead (or winger or outhalf), which may mean some argument between them. Each province will now have to recognise which positions they need a NIE player to fill, and put their cause to the IRFU to ensure they get that player.
The changes also specify that “all future provincial non-Irish eligible player contracts will be position specific”. An example again illustrates this example best. If Munster were to sign, say, James Hook from Perpignan, his contract would have to state which position Munster intended to play him in. Hook has the ability to play 10, 12, 13 and 15 but Munster would have to contract him as one of these. So, if he was contracted as a 15, he could only play at fullback. Barring emergency circumstances (injuries and suspensions) Hook would not be permitted to play in any other position on the pitch.
Another change is that NIE players will only be allowed a single contract. The IRFU has stated that “[f]or the 2013/14 season and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad”. So the Irish provinces will be limited to signing NIE players for a single contract only. The NIE player will then be forced to move away from the province at the end of their contract.
Firstly and most immediately, this means that the likes of Isa Nacewa and Ruan Pienaar will be leaving their provinces at the end of their contracts. This will be an obvious blow to the provinces in the short-term, losing key players like these. However, it will certainly benefit Irish players in the longer-term. Taking the example of Pienaar, once his contract is finished, Ulster will have to let him go and will be prohibited from signing a new NIE scrumhalf. This means that someone like Paul Marshall, currently undeservedly sitting on the bench, will take their place in Ulster’s starting 15.
Nacewa won't be offered a new contract at Leinster due to the new rulings. (c) Martin Dobey.
John Afoa and BJ Botha will also be leaving Ireland when their contracts expire. As a result, Ulster and Munster will need to give their young props more exposure to ensure they are ready to step up when Afoa and Botha’s contracts finish. The likes of Adam Macklin and Stephen Archer will now need to feature more for their provinces so as to be Heineken Cup-ready when these current front-liners leave.
Secondly, this change may result in NIE players being more hesitant to move to Ireland. If they are only being offered a short-term contract, these players may be more hesitant to uproot their families and lives. The advantage of bringing in NIE players is often the experience they bring to the provinces. However, with only a single contract on offer, these experienced professionals may not be willing to move. This stipulation in the changes may actually result in a downturn in the quality of NIE players coming to Ireland.
The fourth principle of the IRFU statement says that “All future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland”. This is much the same as the other rulings. Each province will have to have Irish qualified players as back-up in the same position as their NIE player. Again, this will only increase the amount of exposure young Irish players get.
Connacht will be unaffected by the changes. (c) James Gallagher.
Connacht have been exempted from these procedures, with the IRFU saying that the province “has recently commenced a new programme of structural and performance development”. This means Connacht will be permitted to bring in NIE players in any position, regardless of the other provinces’ NIE players. When you look at the likes of Fetu’u Vainikolo and Mia Nikora though, you have to wonder if these players are benefiting Connacht at all. They don’t bring any real experience to the squad and there are surely uncontracted Irish players with the same levels of ability.
So will these changes benefit Irish rugby? It’s hard to see how they won’t in the long-term. If Ireland can get to the point where at least two players in every position are playing Heineken Cup standard rugby then it will improve the squad immensely. It’s the short-term where the changes might have negative effects. If the provinces are forced into selecting young players in key positions at Heineken Cup level, it really means throwing them in at the deep end. As mentioned above, there may also be a reduction in the quality of NIE players coming to Ireland.
Overall, it looks to be a good thing. Perhaps the changes need a little bit of adjustment but Eddie Wigglesworth, the IRFU Director of Rugby, has said that the “four guiding principles that we have down are non-negotiable”. He qualified that statement by saying that if these principles meant a province looked weak due to injuries or a lack of Irish players of sufficient quality then the IRFU “would have to be quite pragmatic and adjust the policy within the framework”.
Four guiding principles to deliver at least two experienced players in all 15 field positions for national selection:
1 One non Irish eligible (NIE) player only in each of the 15 field positions across the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster e.g. one foreign player allowed across all three teams per position.
2 For the season 2013/14 and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad.
3 All future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland.
4 All future provincial NIE player contracts will be position specific.
So what do you make of the new principles the IRFU has laid down? Will this be a good thing for Irish rugby? Or will it mean weakened provinces, and as a result a weaker national team? Comment below with your opinion on these new changes and how they could be improved or changed?
Photos courtesy: Martin Dobey, Jose Ramon Vega, Ivan O’Riordan, James Gallagher.