If you’re confused by the announcement earlier today that Ulster have retained the services of Johann Muller then you are not alone. You thought that under the IRFU’s ethnic cleansing programme the NIEs (Non Ireland Eligible) had to move on once their contract was up? Well, yes and no.
The regulation in question, slipped into the public domain while the office parties were in full swing, in Christmas week 2011, reads as follows:
For the 2013/14 season and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad.
There has been no change in that regulation, one of four items on a piece of legislation that was well intentioned but unworkable. What we’re seeing now however is a negotiation process where the provinces make a case over retaining an individual, and the union try and figure out if they have a case.
This is a good thing. Which makes you wonder why they didn’t go straight to that point and bypass the idea of legislating in the first place. Eh, because they never thought it through, that’s why.
What’s happened with Muller is as follows: his contract ends this season; Ulster go to the union and say that he’s a help not a hindrance to developing local second rows on the squad; Quinn Roux (who may become a ‘project’ for Leinster) is the only other NIE on the scene; so add it all up lads and let him stay. And the union say ok.
Similarly Munster have made a request to retain BJ Botha for another two seasons, even though John Afoa is still under contract in Ulster. They were told that if they wanted to keep Botha then they’d have to ditch loose head Wian du Preez. Even though Leinster are losing Heinke van der Merwe to Stade Francais, they won’t be offering a bed to Du Preez, so we’ll see where he finishes up.
Allowing Botha to stay – and he will – manages to break two of the four regulations: the one about not allowing an NIE to renew a contract; and the ruling which forbids more than one NIE in the same position across Ulster, Leinster or Munster.
So we’ll plough on with two of the three tight head slots (Connacht are not hamstrung by this national succession strategy) blocked by players not qualified to play for Ireland. And this partly explains how we end up assessing Ireland’s chances on any given week by looking at Mike Ross to see if he’s fit, and looking away if he seems dodgy.
Now ask yourself why the union introduced this legislation in the first place. It came in the wake of the World Cup defeat by Wales in 2011 when our shallow pool of players was blamed for a campaign gone wrong. And within 14 months of the new order, its basic premise of providing at least two Ireland qualified players in every front line position with the provinces is in tatters.
That new order incidentally is already being referred to quietly as “a guideline.” Soon it may not be referred to at all.