Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Go North, Young Man

We don't want to upset anyone during the European club rugby off-season, when the most critical subject for debate is just how grotesque most Irish rugby fans are going to look in the new international team jersey, which reportedly comes in three sizes: 'Brad Pitt in Fight Club', 'Genetic Experiment in Creating the Ubermensch' and 'Superhero'. Far be it from us to arouse concerns about the chilly days of winter when there is a whole World Cup ahead over which to elongate our wafer-thin attention spans for six weeks.

But it needs to be said: my goodness, that's a lot of southern hemisphere types, and particularly All Blacks, that are on their way to English and French clubs, as if they weren't dominant enough over our plucky, rosy-cheeked Celtic contenders.

With the final peep on the whistle in Stade de France on 20th October, whether or not Richie McCaw is at last lifting the Webb Ellis trophy for the All Blacks, many of the leading lights of rugby's most feared international franchise will be staying on in the northern hemisphere.

Prop Carl Hayman (Newcastle), lock Chris Jack (Saracens), centre Aaron Mauger (Leicester), scrum-half Byron Kelleher (Toulouse), winger Rico Gear (Worcester) and hooker Anton Oliver (Toulon) have agreed deals to leave the Land of the Long White Cloud after the World Cup, and it now seems likely that Luke McAlister, the highly rated 23-year-old centre, will sign for Sale.

In addition, many other All Blacks have sent their agents prowling around the big-spending French and English clubs, in the hope of securing lucrative post-World Cup retainers. Of the aforementioned names, only Oliver (32 in September) and Kelleher (30) are in their fourth decade. In other words, most of the talent mentioned are top players, in the prime of their careers, for whom a move north is not the lucrative stopover on the winding road to retirement it has been in the past. McAlister in particular is a player whose loss would be sorely felt by the NZRU and the Super 14 competition.

Several Springboks, including captain John Smit (Clermont-Auvergne), Butch James (Bath), Victor Matfield (Toulon) and Percy Montgomery (Perpignan) have committed their immediate futures north of the equator, with several others believed to be following the lure of pounds and euros.

This mass movement is, of course, being seen as the latest blow to rugby's traditional international order, with the club game in England and France edging closer to being the dominant controlling forces in world rugby, in the way the major European leagues are in soccer. The extra-large slices of the Heineken Cup pie brokered by the English clubs in particular during the recent impasse over the competition's future have only strengthened the power they now wield.

So if the august institutions of international rugby and the southern hemisphere's representative and club tournaments fear denudement of importance, Celtic rugby, that feisty but raggle-taggle entity, must also be petrified at the heavy artillery their English and French rivals can now summon.

Where Irish rugby in particular, and to a lesser extent our Welsh counterparts, have kept some semblance of pace with the clubs of England and France through careful husbandry of native talent via the central contract system, if the world market were to truly open to movement of players to the highest bidder, there could only be one, fat-walleted winner.

In contrast to the glittering names coming north to England and France, Munster and Leinster's main foreign acquisitions thus far are Rua Tipoki (a New Zealand Maori) and 34-year-old former Springbok stalwart Ollie Le Roux respectively. Edinburgh's recruitment of Stephen Larkham, while eye-catching, given the Aussie outhalf's still-glowing talent, is definitely another case of an old-stager's last payday.

Whether the All Blacks will stick to their policy of only selecting home based players for World Cups for 2011, therefore forcing their expatriates home eventually, remains to be seen. But the lure of the English and French lucre is likely to be as hurtful close to home as in the the far-off lands of the south.

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