Nobody within the Irish game is under any illusions as to the difficulty the provinces face in trying to reassert themselves amongst the game’s elite. Having pilfered five European crowns in seven years, Munster and Leinster now lag miles behind the continent’s superpowers.
The French game has been awash with money for the past number of seasons, while the English game is rapidly catching up with their cross channel rivals. There are – ever increasing – salary caps in place in the Top 14 and the Aviva, but with each of the clubs being independently owned, there are no restrictions on where the players come from.
The Irish system is much different. Apart from the occasional dig out by wealthy benefactors, the IRFU are heavily relied upon to support the funding of the provinces’ yearly wage bill.
With the national team in mind, they have placed restrictions on the number of overseas players who take up spots within the provincial system. Each of the provinces can host four non-Irish qualified players, while they have one further spot set aside for a foreign player who dons the “project player” tag.
There is certainly not enough money within the Irish game for the provinces to compete with the top dollar wages being offered by their French and English counterparts, so there must be a more coherent approach taken with the overseas allowances to ensure the provinces access the very best players available from abroad.
The list of overseas players to have represented the province is certainly hit and miss, and below is a look at the current status of the overseas players playing with the provinces. (Connacht are excluded as the IRFU restrictions don’t apply to them.)
Francis Saili: An experienced Super Rugby performer with the Auckland Blues, 24 year old Saili signed a two year deal this summer with the southern province. The twice capped All Black stated that plying his trade abroad for a couple a seasons would improve his game, and help become a regular fixture in the All Black squad in the future. The centre has shown occasional examples of his wonderful talent, and if can consistently produce the goods he’ll be invaluable for Munster over the next 18 months.
Mark Chisholm: Chisholm was brought in during the summer to compensate for the loss of 202 international caps, following the departures of Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan. The 34 year old signed a two year contract with Munster in August, but he has yet to produce the athletic on field performances we were accustomed to during a 58 cap Australian career. With Irish internationals Dave Foley and Donnacha Ryan vying for places in the second row, the former Wallaby seems like an unnecessary luxury as an overseas player.
Tyler Bleyendaal: Injuries have played their part but there is no doubting the signing of the former New Zealand U-20 World Cup winning captain has been a bust. A neck injury suffered just weeks before his arrival rendered him unavailable for the majority of last season, but his injury woes have carried over into this term and the Kiwi has taken the field just five times in 18 months. Bleyendaal signed a three year contract in 2014, so Munster are lumbered with the 23 year old sick note for another season and a half.
Gerhard Van den Heever: Van den Heever arrived in November 2013 on a three year deal, and has proven himself to be a valuable squad member for the province in that time, scoring 5 tries in 26 appearances. The 26 year old’s deal expires at the end of the season and Munster will then have to decide if they want to retain the services of a player who becomes Irish qualified in November 2016.
Munster also have BJ Botha, Mario Sagario and Lucas Amorosino registered as overseas players, but all three are on short-term, injury cover contracts, so they do not count towards their foreign quota. Meanwhile CJ Stander graduated from his “project player” status this year which means Munster are now on the lookout for a new player to fill this role.
Isa Nacewa: A folk hero amongst Leinster supporters, Nacewa and was crucial to the province’s cause when winning three European Cups between 2009 and 2012. The Fijian returned to the province this summer after two years in retirement and has represented Leinster 131 times between his two stints. Capturing the 33 year old on a one year deal will prove to be a masterstroke if he can impart his wisdom onto Leinster’s emerging stars.
Zane Kirchner: The South African’s signing in 2013 was a bit of a surprise, and his resigning at the end of last year hasn’t gone down well with provincial supporters. At his best Kirchner is a credible rival to Rob Kearney for the Leinster full back shirt. The 31 year old has represented Leinster 54 times, but the South African international spends most of his time alternating between wing and bench duties for the province.
Ben Te’o: The Kiwi joined Leinster on a two year contract in 2014, with the intentions of playing international rugby. The rugby league convert arrived at precisely the same time his former teammate Sam Burgess was beginning his ill-fated union tenure with Bath. Away from the glare of the media and with none of the expectation that was placed on the Englishman’s shoulders, Te’o has developed into an important player for Leinster. Last month the 28 year old centre signalled his intentions to join English side Worcester from the beginning of next season.
Hayden Triggs: With Leinster short on experience in the second row, the veteran lock joined the province during the 2015 World Cup on a one year deal. The 33 year old journey man was a signing of necessity rather than design when Rhys Ruddock and Mike McCarthy were belatedly called into the Irish World Cup squad to cover injuries. The former New Zealand Maori has represented Leinster 4 times since he joined, and is highly likely to be cut loose at the end of the season when his deal expires.
Ruan Pienaar: The Springbok is Ulster’s marquee overseas signing, having arrived on an initial two year deal in 2010. The 31 year old has enjoyed a very good career with the Northern province, featuring for the side on 107 occasions thus far. His influence on a young backline packed with emerging Irish talent is obvious to see and the former World Cup winner’s latest contract extension will keep him in Belfast until 2017.
Nick Williams: After an ill-fated time in Munster, the Kiwi has found his groove in the white of Ulster. Williams has been one of the province’s most important players since he joined from Italian side Aironi in 2012. After four good years with Ulster in which he has amassed 14 tries in 70 games, he has agreed to join Cardiff from next season.
Franco Van der Merwe: Signed in 2014 to replace his retiring countryman Johann Muller, the South African lock is nearing the end of the two year deal he signed upon arrival in the North. A solid set piece operator, the 32 year old has never set pulses racing at Ravenhill, but has yet to let his employers down.
Louis Ludik: Ulster has become something of a haven for South Africans in recent times and the full back arrived on these shores on a two year deal in 2015, via a year in France. The 29 year old has acquitted himself well, appearing 38 times for Ulster in a season and a half. However, with All Black Charles Piutau arriving from next season, Ludik is unlikely to be offered an extension.
Wiehahn Herbst: Ulster’s designated “project player” is in the second of his three year contract with the province. The South African born tight head will follow in the footsteps of fellow countrymen Robbie Diack and Rob Herring should he don the Irish jersey when he becomes eligible in 2017. The 27 year old has represented Ulster on 39 occasions to date.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.