Ruan Pienaar will leave Ulster at the end of the 2016/17 season after the province were blocked from extending his contract. Ulster are keen to keep the 88-cap Springbok but it would break IRFU rules. This has sparked fresh debate about Ireland‘s provincial structure.
What are the IRFU rules?
Since 2013, the three main Irish provinces (Leinster, Munster and Ulster as this was before the Pat Lam revolution at Connacht) have fallen under stricter rules regarding their recruitment. Already being restricted to just four non-Irish eligible (NIE) players plus one “special project”. A special project being typically a young, uncapped player with a long contract so they can play for Ireland eventually (see: CJ Stander, Richardt Strauss, Jared Payne). They were subject to these new rules:
“- 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.
– 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.
– All future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland.
– All future provincial non-Irish eligible player contracts will be position specific.” (from RTE.ie)
How do these rules apply to Ruan Pienaar?
Ruan Pienaar signed with Ulster for the 2010/11 season, long before these new rules were brought in. No problem there. In 2013, he re-signed for Ulster, breaking the second rule mentioned above. Ulster got special dispensation that time, allowing them to fend off Toulon for his services. This time there is a further problem, and that lies in Dublin. Leinster signed Maori All Black halfback Jamieson Gibson-Park, so there are now two foreign 9’s in Ireland. Leinster were in dire need of an import in this position because both their senior scrum halves left last year. Eoin Reddan retired while Isaac Boss returned to New Zealand, leaving a gaping hole. With two rules broken, it is hard to justify giving Ulster special dispensation again.
Why are fans upset?
This falls into two categories. One school of thought is that the rules are applied so inconsistently so as to be meaningless. The other is that just blanket rules do not actually benefit the Irish national team. Let’s try to explore both of these as Pienaar’s case is fuel for both.
The rules are inconsistent
As mentioned already, Ruan Pienaar is only at Ulster today due to special dispensation from head office. Just today, Ulster announced the signing of a Georgian prop as an injury replacement. What happened to all injury cover must be Irish qualified? Louis Ludik was allowed to renew his contract for this season, despite the incoming Charles Piutau. This leaves Ulster with NIE players Franco Van Der Merwe, Ludik, Piutau, Pienaar and Marcel Coetzee. Then there’s Special Project Wiehahn Herbst and the new injury cover Anton Peikrishvili. That’s seven players that can’t play for Ireland this season, not the four plus one supposedly allowed. What’s more, Van Der Merwe theoretically shouldn’t have been signed as he was a direct replacement for a previous NIE player Johann Muller.
The anomalies don’t just apply in Belfast. Munster were allowed to re-sign BJ Botha on a couple of occasions, despite the rules about contract renewal. Leinster directly replaced Isa Nacewa with Zane Kirchner, but then brought Nacewa back too so have two wing/fullback NIEs. They also signed Hayden Triggs last season, Despite there also being NIE second rows in Munster (Mark Chisholm) and Ulster (Van Der Merwe)
For rules to be taken seriously, they have to be applied consistently. As things stand, many rugby fans in Ireland do not trust David Nucifora (IRFU performance director). Highlighted by George Hook in the Irish Independent and by the blogger “Rugby Lad”, people are sceptical.
The rules don’t actually work
This is where things get very subjective. Have the rules improved the national team? Since they were brought in, Ireland have won back to back Six Nations Championships, won their World Cup pool and beaten South Africa away from home. These are landmark results and suggest the rules work, but they coincide with Joe Schmidt, Ireland’s best coach of the professional era. How much is the system, how much is the coach and the players, it’s hard to say.
In 2009 Ireland won their only Grand Slam in living memory while Leinster and Munster were the dominant teams in Europe. Those sides were littered with foreign stars. Leinster in particular had Rocky Elsom and Felipe Contepomi, who’s presence forced two current Ireland stars to up their game. Would Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip be the players they are today without having to train week in week out with those imported stars?
Finding the balance between maintaining high standards and homegrown talent is a challenge for every country North of the Equator. Ireland are better than most at striking that balance, but is this the right way about it?
What’s the solution?
Perhaps a looser structure would make things easier, if more controversial. As every foreign player’s contract must be agreed by the IRFU already, it might be better to just make that the policy. Stick to five NIE players as a guideline, but allow the IRFU to block certain signings if they may be directly in the way of test players.
Scrumhalf is a problem issue for Ireland right now, with only Conor Murray and Keiran Marmion even close to test standard. It is clear that Ireland need another player coming through, and it is “Ulster’s turn” to produce this player. The problem is that player might not exist, he certainly hasn’t shown himself yet. In the meantime, Ruan Pienaar has made Ulster a team with a winning culture. His influence on those around him, most prominently Paddy Jackson, has left Ulster with a world class backline.
It is unclear whether Pienaar leaving will improve Ireland’s international team in any way.