Today, Ireland were dealt a crushing blow with the news that Jonathan Sexton has been ruled out of Saturday’s Six Nations opener against Scotland.
Paddy Jackson has been trusted as a deputy in the past. The manner in which he led the line against Australia in November dictates that the Ulsterman is a shoo-in to fill the void on Saturday.
However, it’s not so clear-cut when it comes to the bench. Ian Keatley has not exactly set the world alight over the past two years, and there has been nothing to suggest that he is capable of leading an Irish assault on the Six Nations title over the coming months.
Is the Irish system so weak and the lack of depth so bare that top class out-halves are not coming through the system?
The IRFU appears to have a strict policy** that any player plying his trade outside of Ireland will not be selected for the national team.
**This rule does not apply if your name happens to be Jonathan Sexton.
Scanning around Europe, there is a number of Irish out-halves with the potential to do a job for Joe Schmidt’s side. Ian Madigan has recently left these shores, JJ Hanrahan is returning to Munster next year, while Gareth Steenson has been one of the most consistent performers near the top of the Aviva Premiership for a number of years.
Unlike other unions, the IRFU has never expressly stated such a policy, but it is clear to see. The theory behind it is perfectly understandable and reasonable; to protect the professional game in the country and to discourage top stars from signing for big-spending English and French clubs.
However, in practice, this is not the case.
When Sexton departed for Racing 92, it was widely anticipated that Ian Madigan would get his chance to shine at 10, breaking free from the confines of being a victim of his own versatility in the Leinster backline.
However, the province was quick to bring in Jimmy Gopperth, and it was as-you-were for Madigan. As Sexton’s return loomed, Madigan had to choose if he ever wanted to be a starting 10 for a professional side.
Players are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and the blame lies at the feet of the IRFU. Surely it would not be impossible to share the wealth essentially, and create an environment where the provinces can cater for each other’s short-comings?
This has been seen in the past. Two corner-stones of Leinster’s Heineken Cup successes, Mike Ross and Eoin Reddan, failed to make the grade in Munster earlier in their careers. Likewise, Andrew Conway and Felix Jones were huge additions at Thomond Park.
Madigan rode off into the sunset, leaving behind him his international career, while in Munster the starting out-half is a Kiwi not eligible for Irish selection. There is a serious problem if there can only be a maximum of four out-halves, starting for their clubs, available to Ireland.
This is a problem not exclusive to the 10 jersey. Ulster and Munster were forced to look abroad to solve their back-row deficiencies. This is not to enter the topical argument regarding CJ Stander’s eligibility, but merely to acknowledge the fact that neither Munster nor Ulster found solutions to their problems at home.
Meanwhile, there is a bottle-neck of talent in Leinster, with Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Josh Van Der Flier, Jordi Murphy, Jack Conan, Rhys Ruddock, Dominic Ryan and Dan Leavy all vying for three starting positions.
With nine capped back-rows at the RDS, frustrations will grow. Expect to see one or more of these players move abroad in the coming years in search of regular game-time, and thus Ireland will lose a promising star.
The cycle will begin once more, and some of Ireland’s top players will not be selected due to being based in England or France.
To play devil’s advocate, is it really the worst thing for some Irish players to go overseas? If Ian Madigan had remained with Leinster, content to play second fiddle behind Sexton, Joey Carbery would not have had his chance to shine.
Does it not free up space for more Irish players to be exposed to the top levels of club rugby, thus preparing them for the international game?
Nonetheless, this writer sees few benefits to the IRFU’s current selection policy for overseas players. The union is shooting itself in the foot, and this weekend, the consequences are being laid bare.