Brian Smith was a talented Australian-born out-half, who had scored a try in the win over Ireland at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987.
Two years later, he was studying at Oxford and, when Ireland coach Jimmy Davidson found out he had a Wexford grandmother, he set about trying to fix what he felt was a problem position in his team.
Smith, who played his club rugby for Leicester, was talked into declaring for Ireland and he featured in the Five Nations Championships of 1990 and 1991.
At the same time as Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland soccer team was benefitting from the ‘granny’ rule, there was strong opposition to the rugby team having to go outside the country for recruits.
The anti-Smith quarters had vindication of sorts when, in March 1991, it was announced that he was to return to Australia immediately to play for rugby league side Balmain. Ken Reid, the chair of the selectors of the Irish team, called his departure at such short notice a “breach of trust”, especially as another world cup was on the horizon.
Ralph Keyes played in the number 10 jersey for the world cup as Ireland lost narrowly to Australia in a classic quarter-final and the Cork native even finished as the competition’s top scorer. Ireland survived and Eric Elwood came along to take over the out-half role on a longer-term basis, but the idea of ‘importing’ players took a blow.
It happens a lot more now as players can qualify on residency rather than just familial links, but there is still a strong sentiment against the dilution of national identity.
Regulation Eight in the World Rugby rulebook covers eligibility and of course Ireland are not the only country to take advantage – every rugby-playing nation has. It’s easy to say that a stand should be taken but a coach paid to win matches will use every avenue available to him and, while some ‘project players’ have not worked out, CJ Stander is one that certainly did.
It was fitting that the South African native’s tenure as an Ireland international came to an end with victory over England in what was his 51st cap last Saturday evening. The emotion shown by him afterwards clearly displayed what it meant to represent Ireland, while the post-match comments from captain Jonathan Sexton and man of the match Robbie Henshaw left no doubt as to the standing in which he is held by his colleagues.
Ireland and Munster will miss Stander, but the good habits he showed in training and matches will hopefully have rubbed off on those coming after him.
It was somewhat unfair that he became so associated with criticisms of the residency rule – soon to be extended from three years to five – as he was the prime example of how it can be used for good. Nevertheless, he will be remembered as a player who gave his all in the green jersey, regardless of his birthplace.
As mentioned above, he signed off with a win over England at the Aviva Stadium and Ireland’s best performance of the Six Nations campaign meant that Andy Farrell’s side finished with three straight wins after beginning with two defeats.
That those losses were against the countries almost certain to finish first and second in the table isn’t of much consolation, but Ireland should have beaten Wales and could have beaten France, though in the case of the latter they are a team further along in their development than the current Ireland side.
Saturday showed that there is something there to be built upon, though, with signs that lessons have been learned. The challenge will be to pick up that momentum again when the international calendar resumes, whenever that may be.
Leaving aside the question of why inter-county GAA is not considered elite sport when the SSE Airtricity League is, the reality is that action in the country’s top tier of soccer resumed last weekend with games in the Premier Division.
The First Division commences this weekend and supporters of the teams involved can watch their sides’ live games on attractively-priced streaming services, which proved successful last season and should do so again.
The opening-night clash between league champions Shamrock Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic was shown live on Friday night but, at a time when there is an opportunity to attract the attention of the casual supporters, RTÉ has taken the decision to dispense with the weekly highlights show, Soccer Republic.
Originally launched as Monday Night Soccer in a one-hour format, two years ago the show was cut to 30 minutes with no studio discussion and the decision to remove the show entirely severely limits the opportunity for the domestic competition’s national exposure.
There will be more live games, but – even with nobody having any social lives – Friday nights are not ideal for viewers. Having a highlight package allowed a greater opportunity for a wider audience and, while RTÉ will point to the viewing figures, the question has to be asked as to whether it was promoted as well as it could have been.
Even last week, there were more TV adverts for the senior international against Serbia – which was always going to draw a crowd – than the Rovers-Pat’s game, even though the international game was nearly a week further into the future.
It’s easy to stop offering a product when you say that nobody is consuming it, but would they have been more inclined to do so if you put it in the shop window?