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Opinion: Three Urgent Questions For Irish Rugby

There are a lot of questions surrounding Irish rugby at the moment – issues that, while ones that can be solved, are problems that the IRFU need to sort out immediately.

Players, both male and female, have legitimate qualms about the way the Union are running things at the moment – but these issues can be solved.

Here, we take an in-depth look at three urgent questions for Irish rugby

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Will Zebo’s departure open the floodgates?

Simon Zebo became Munster’s all-time top try scorer as his side secured 47-0 bonus point win over Zebre in the Guinness PRO12.

In ending Anthony Horgan’s 41-try Munster record which stood for seven years Zebo had notched up an impressive 43 tries in 97 provincial appearances.

Zebo who was well on his way to cult status long before he touched down for the second time against the Italian visitors, is a player at the peak of his powers. While not centrally contracted to the IRFU it was widely expected that the Cork native would extend his stay with his beloved Munster, and be a major part of Joe Schmidt’s plans for the 2019 World Cup.

The fact that he was willing to risk his international future and leave his beloved province is a clear departure from the majority of his other international teammates.

Despite many pessimistic forecasts, there has been no mass exodus of Ireland’s most prized rugby assets across the Irish Sea.

While top Premiership and Top 14 clubs have identified many high profile targets, most have resisted their overtures placing a higher price on the sacred Irish jersey than big-money moves abroad.

While Zebo’s effusive style did not always sit easily in Joe Schmidt’s conservative plans, he was a player who gave Ireland the badly needed Xfactor.

With the exception of Johnny Sexton, and with respect to players like Ian Madigan and Donnacha Ryan, Zebo is the first truly A-list player to defect since Sexton’s departure to Racing 92.

The spotlight is now firmly back on Irish rugby’s governing body. It is clear Zebo will no longer be a part of Ireland’s World Cup aspirations, yet that is a clear contradiction of the handling of Sexton’s sojourn in France.

The fly-half was well aware of his impending international exile and the ramifications of his move to the French capital.

The IRFU who had previously taken a hard line with any defections abroad were now facing a dilemma of their own making.

Sexton was a truly world class fly-half and central to Ireland’s World Cup ambitions. By granting Sexton a free pass the limitations of their unwritten law would be well and truly exposed.

The ambiguity did not bode well for either players or the IRFU.

When the Irish head coach moved swiftly to confirm Zebo’s international exile the glaring ambiguity surfaced once more.

How long will it be before the likes of Conor Murray, who like Sexton, is in the irreplaceable category, tests the IRFU’s resolve?

In professional sport money talks and the IRFU cannot possibly compete with the elite and cash-rich clubs of European rugby. The alarm bells must now be surely ringing at the IRFU’s headquarters. How much longer before the dam bursts?

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What price is an Irish rugby jersey?

It is surely one of the great paradoxes of modern-day Irish sport that the IRFU can exclude Irish born players who play in a different country, yet can select players who were not born Ireland but who have lived here for a few years.

The criteria for becoming an international rugby player for Ireland is alarmingly straightforward. Get on a plane, pick up a provincial contract and you could be belting out the words of Amhrán na bhFiann in three years.

It is a short window in a professional rugby playing career and no one can blame the so-called ‘Project Players’ for exploiting it.

That they are openly encouraged to do so by the very people who are charged with developing the game in this country, is a staggering contradiction.

They are also doing so at the expense of up and coming Irish born talent, this is by any standards a baffling double standard. The trickle of Project Players on the national side is steadily building into a flow. No one doubts the merits of gifted Samoan Bundee Aki’s elevation to Joe Schmidt’s training squad.

RBS 6 Nations Championship Round 4, Principality Stadium, Cardiff, Wales 10/3/2017 Wales vs Ireland Ireland's CJ Stander with Scott Williams of Wales
INPHO/Dan Sheridan
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The dilemma facing not just Irish rugby is which is the way forward. There is no doubting some outstanding outside talent has contributed to the success of Irish rugby.

Yet for every CJ Stander and Bundee Aki, an Irish born player must be squeezed out of the equation. Players who have climbed through the ranks of our rugby schools system, academies and clubs.

The IRFU are playing a dangerous game. How long before the balance tips in favour of non-Irish born players?

The provinces depend on signing quality players from overseas. This is a professional game and results are all that matter. Every edge has to be exploited but of course, there is a heavy price to pay down the line. The overseas players are carefully selected and are at a greater stage of their rugby development than our own emerging home-grown players.

They are ready to compete at the highest level and have every chance of success. That means a fast track to the Irish side at the expense of an Irish born player.

It is increasingly likely that there will be three Project players featuring in the November series. While Stander, Payne and Aki are very much part of the Irish rugby landscape, how long before we have seven or eight of their ilk wearing the green shirt?

The cold reality is any project player comes here for money, not for love. Surely we cannot auction off our glorious Irish rugby heritage?

What kind of dynamic will that breed? How Irish will Ireland truly be?

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Is it time for the IRFU to give serious support?

The TG4 All-Ireland ladies football final between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park set a new record for the highest attendance at a women’s sporting event of 2017.

Not only did this surpass the record attendance for a Gaelic games ladies decider, it also beat the record crowd of 35,271 who were in attendance at Wembley Stadium for last May’s Women’s FA Cup final.

Dublin were the victors of an entertaining contest that was played out in front of 46,286 souls.

The tag-line for the LIDL backed ladies championship is ‘Serious Support’ and given the current landscape in Irish woman’s rugby, raises a number of disturbing questions.

The decision to appoint a part-time coach in the wake of the departure of Tom Tierney was a slap in the face for those who had worked so hard to bring credibility to the ladies game.

Considering the World Cup shambles and the inevitable root and branch review, this was some departure from the expected script.

How could a team who beat France in the Six Nations on the 26th February by three points be twenty-one points inferior just five months later?

A late Cliodhna Moloney consolation try may have reduced that margin by five and brought some badly needed gloss to the scoreboard, but it could not mask the sheer ineptitude of the Irish performance. This was a stroll for Samuel Cherouk’s well-drilled charges.

While on the surface Ireland seemed to be an upward curve heading into the World Cup, appearances turned out to be very misleading.

With public interest in the woman’s game at an all-time high, it seemed the time was ripe for the hosts to make a statement.

A nervy opening night win (19-17) at the UCD Bowl against Australia was followed by a first-half capitulation against the Japanese.  Ireland eventually weathered the storm but unease was growing about their tactical naivety and lack of cohesion in their general play.

Coach Tom Tierney came under increasing fire as the voices of discontent continued to grow louder.

When France dismantled the home side the facade crumbled. While Tierney and his coaching staff were rightly shouldered with a large portion of the blame, the IRFU were about to take matters to a whole new level.

Performances against Wales and Scotland in the Six Nations hinted at a dip in standards and while Ireland were flattered to finish in second place, there was no hint of what was about to follow.

The general consensus was Ireland would be a different proposition on home soil and performance levels would rise sharply.

The lack of structure and an alarming lack of execution on show has left the ladies game in this country at a crossroads.

One thing is certain. The performance of the ladies team at the ill-fated World Cup has halted a growing momentum for the game in this country.

There has never been a better climate for the ladies sport. Numbers are increasing across all codes. The IRFU  must not spurn a glorious opportunity to cash on public goodwill and expand the profile of the ladies game.

If German supermarket chain can give serious support to ladies sport in this country, all at Landsdowne Road should bow their heads in shame.

Ladies rugby has come too far and strived too hard to be treated with such shameful disdain.

Eddie Ryan, Pundit Arena

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Join The Biggest Rugby Club in Ireland

The Heineken Rugby Club is bringing Ireland together over cold beers and big games. No matter which team you back, we’re all friends here. Become a member for access to match tickets, member discounts and rewards, exclusive events, and much more.
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About Eddie Ryan

Author of the bestselling Little Book of GAA Facts and The Little Book of Rugby Facts, Eddie also writes the sports column for Ireland's Own Magazine and is a contributor to Extra Time Live. A qualified life coach who lives in Templemore, County Tipperary with his fiancée Mary.

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