Team of Us, and them and those and who ever you are having yourself
Maybe it says something about our national psyche, but when one of our national sides perform brilliantly on a national stage, we seek out the opinion of the vanquished almost immediately. Maybe it is insecurity on our behalf, I have never really understood it. So it was no surprise when on Monday last, the major news outlets in this country delighted in telling us what the New Zealand press had made of Ireland’s win over the All Blacks the previous Saturday. Is it a bit voyeuristic of us to want to know if the other side are hurting as much as we are celebrating? Does it really matter what the New Zealand press make of it all anyway, Ireland won a test match against the best team in the world and deserved to win it.
Unlike our previous win over the All Blacks in 2018 we didn’t just rely on our defence, we attacked at every opportunity, offloaded at pace and, with 15 minutes to go, the New Zealand team had already made 210 tackles and were out on their feet. Ireland have only beaten the New Zealand rugby team three times in over 100 years of trying and never in a World Cup game so some perspective is required here. They are at the end of their season, we are at the start of ours. They looked visibly shattered in the final quarter, we looked lively and snappy. Two years ago they beat us in a much more important match, the World Cup quarter final, on a score line of 46-14.
And when you look at the reaction in the New Zealand press they are complimentary but they also reference the fact that more than one New Zealander was playing for Ireland. James Lowe was born in New Zealand and played for the Māori All Blacks. Ditto Jamison Gibson Park. Bundee Aki was born in Auckland and is of Samoan descent. And it was a little disconcerting to hear James Lowe after the match declare; ‘It’s amazing. Never in a million year could I have thought this day would come. Ever since I was a kid I had dreamt of being an All Black, that’s just a very Kiwi thing to do. I gave up that dream, I wasn’t quite good enough when I was at my best almost. To be able to come over here and put in a performance against the best team in the world, they are the standard-bearers, words can’t describe it. To hear my native country’s national anthem, to stand in front of the Haka, it’s a childhood dream…’
Eh, thanks James, but surely it was your childhood dream to be in the Haka and not standing in front of it. You would have much preferred to be performing it rather than observing it. Now, Ireland are breaking no rules in playing these three players and we are simply doing what others, New Zealand included, have been doing for many, many years. Indeed, Ireland have been a little late to the table on this one. But here is the thing, young boys and girls in Ireland have childhood dreams too. And playing for your country is often one of them. And if you are not good enough, then very often that’s it. Not good enough for International Rugby. But some gifted players, like Lowe, refuse to accept that an International career is beyond them and they avail of residency rules to swop allegiances and play for another nation.
Again, I have no real problem with Ireland doing this. The problem I have is that World Rugby allow it, promote it, change their rules to facilitate it. There are four ways a player can be eligible to represent a country at international rugby level. They are: 1 They were born in the country. 2 They have a parent or grandparent who was born in the country. 3 They have lived in the country for 36 consecutive months (three years) to qualify on residency immediately before playing. 4 They have completed ten years of cumulative residence in the country before playing.
And Messer’s Aki, Gibson-Park and Lowe were taking the places of players born here, or who identify as Irish or are products of the coaching structures in Ireland. Nationhood is complicated. And can often be associated with jingoistic barbs that can be hurtful, negative and sectarian. But what future can International Rugby have if players can simply swap allegiances after spending just three years in another country. Will it morph into a soccer style affair where players can be bought and sold, transferred between teams with impunity. Will the Irish rugby team become a brand more that a team of individuals that collectively represent us?
A few years ago, Munster Rugby decided that two Tipperary born players were surplus to requirements, Dave Foley and Donnacha Ryan. They both went to play in France and enjoyed mush success over there, both have now retired. Leaving Ireland meant that they had to forfeit their international careers. Simon Zebo was not selected for Ireland whilst he was playing in France but is eligible for selection once more now that he has returned to Munster. Johnny Sexton was selected for Ireland whilst playing in Paris for Racing 92, and no-one can properly explain to me why the rules didn’t apply to Johnny. Whilst Foley and Ryan were playing their club rugby in France, Munster employed a South African, Jean Kleyn to play in the second row. Kleyn has now been here for over three years consecutively and is eligible to play for Ireland. Effectively Munster Rugby allowed a man who started his rugby life in Western Province, Cape Town to leapfrog two men, one who started his rugby life with Clonmel RFC and the other with Nenagh Ormond RFC. No rules were broken but it was hardly a ringing endorsement of homegrown talent.
Rules are to be tightened up on the residency front and, from this year, players are required to spend 5 consecutive years in a country before becoming eligible for the national team. This is not a solution. CJ Stander was told he was ‘too small’ to play International Rugby by South African coaches and he became a ‘project player’ for Munster and then Ireland. Yes he did the state some service, playing 156 times for Munster and earning 51 caps for Ireland and then, rather incongruously touring South Africa with the British and Irish Lions. Stander grew up dreaming of being a Springbok, he played for South Africa at under 18 and under 20 level. And when rejected by the nation he identified with, he simply switched. And if this nation swapping is allowed to continue then the concept of say the Six Nations is open to ridicule. As countless nations are already involved.
Whilst watching Ireland last Saturday, I was reminded of something Irish footballer Kevin Kilbane said about playing for Ireland. Kilbane was born in Preston, Lancashire and was signed to his local team, Preston North End. Whilst there he was called up to the England Under 18 squad. He declined, despite the protestations of his manager at the time Sam Allardyce. He declined because he didn’t identify as English.
“It’s what I always wanted to do and I was fortunate that I got the opportunity. I will never ever underestimate the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to play for my country. And I say my country because that is the way I always felt. It is my identity.”
He didn’t choose to play for Ireland because he was told he wasn’t good enough to play for England or that he was too small to play for England. He played for Ireland because that is what he felt most identified him as who he was. The same for Jack Grealish and Declan Rice. Both had played underage for Ireland but now play international football for England. Grealish spent time with both the English and Irish underage camps when he was younger. And when the crunch came he chose the nation that he was more comfortable identifying with. If we can applaud Kilbane’s decision then we should also be capable of accepting Grealish’s. The Declan Rice situation was a little different in that he seemed to be hedging his bets more so than Grealish. But ultimately he made his decision and the best of luck to him. None of the three footballers mentioned here had been rejected by any nation, not least the nation of their birth. Rather two nations competed for their services and the players made the decision that sat most comfortably with them.
And this is what we need international rugby players to do too. Putting on a green jersey in Landsdowne Road and signing Amhrán na bhFiann is a tremendous honour. And players should be cognisant that many others have dreamed of doing it too but were not as talented or as lucky. You don’t have to have been born in Ireland to identify as Irish and many people born on this island identify as British. Such is our complexity as a nation. But our International Rugby team represents both traditions on this island. And in future years they will represent other traditions too in the same way that our international football team now represents Irish players with a Nigerian tradition as well as an Irish one. I never thought that I would say this, but international rugby could learn something from international football.