Ireland’s international rugby panel is finally a thing of beautiful depth and talent, a mix of experience, talent, youth and ambition. It’s a pity it could soon be undone by the deep pockets of our continental neighbours.
Less than two years out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup, head coach Joe Schmidt has been steadily building a squad that could legitimately challenge for a place in the latter stages of the competition, perhaps even the final where all bets are off.
Having seen their team fail to live up to expectations last time around in 2015, due to injury and attrition, fans are already eyeing the next iteration of the championships in Japan and are beginning to believe that Ireland will travel to the far east as one of the favourites.
Irish sports has always thrived under the label of the underdog, giving fans all manner of memorable moments over the years.
That label has become increasingly difficult to pin on an international rugby squad that can boast the record of being the only Test side that has defeated all of the Big Three nations from the southern hemisphere in the past year or so.
Add the scalp of England during the 2017 Six Nations championship and in Ireland, you have a side that has beaten the best of the best in the space of 12 short months.
The problem with being giant killers, however, is that with success comes attention and this season, Ireland’s stars have become targets of domestic rugby’s richest clubs.
France’s Top 14 and England’s Aviva Premiership have become awash with money in recent seasons, both from the lucrative television rights available through the Champions Cup and their domestic leagues.
Pockets have been deepened further by the investment of a number of super-rich fans which has seen clubs, particularly in France, being able to offer the kind of contracts that until recently were considered far out of reach.
Back in 2013, Leinster out-half Jonathan Sexton made the switch to Racing 92, where he linked up with former Munster and Ireland great Ronan O’Gara, for a lucrative two-year adventure in the Top 14.
Pivotal to Ireland, the IRFU decided to waive their unofficial rule of selecting only home-based players for international duty, such was Sexton’s importance to the Ireland setup.
Now, when the Top 14 came calling again this season, Munster’s dynamic full-back Simon Zebo announced he will also embark on adventures new on the continent at the end of the current campaign.
Rather than repeat the waiver as they did for Sexton, David Nucifora, Joe Schmidt and the IRFU immediately dropped the 27-year-old from international consideration, almost certainly ending the Cork native’s potential involvement in the Rugby World Cup in 2019.
Though considered a massive loss to Ireland, the IRFU have laid down a marker for anyone else who might consider a move abroad, where riches are plenty and the allure to significantly improve their future financial security is strong.
Worryingly, Zebo’s departure may only be the first in a list of big names that could be tempted away this year. As the IRFU look to secure the futures of stars such as Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, both teammates of Zebo at Munster, it appears that the national union is severely disadvantaged when it comes to financial remuneration packages.
The fear is that if more heads are turned and more decide to leave, albeit with heavy hearts, Ireland’s currently talent-laden squad could become denuded and stretched before they have the chance to finally show their full potential in Japan in two-years time.
Having blooded the likes of Bundee Aki, Darren Sweetnam, Chris Farrell and Adam Byrne this past November, along with giving more experience to Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale, among others, Joe Schmidt suddenly has a squad that has the depth to truly contend for silverware, not just the Six Nations trophy next spring, but also perhaps the Webb Ellis Cup.
All the IRFU must do is stem the flow before it starts, an admittedly tall order. Zebo is a real loss for Ireland but with Andrew Conway, Tiernan O’Halloran and Joey Carbery all ready and willing to succeed Rob Kearney, his is a manageable loss.
Players cannot be blamed for wanting to secure their families’ futures. In what is a short career, where salaries are, in relative sporting terms, modest, a few seasons in France or England will do just that.
For Ireland’s internationals, however, playing for the jersey, for the country, has, until now been worth more than money and the IRFU is likely hoping that it will continue to be the way.
While departures are likely inevitable, we can only hope that Ireland’s purse strings are not securely tightened to the point that we see the homegrown stars leave because they were not offered their worth.
The national set-up does not have a bottomless pit of funds and ultimately it cannot blithely dole out cash at the expense of local clubs and their respective academies. A balance, therefore, must be struck but they also cannot ignore that the big boys are coming and they bring with them blank cheques.
Let us hope that the IRFU and our rugby heroes are brave enough to stay the course and show the world what they can do on the biggest stage of all in 2019.