Robbie Henshaw’s troubles at fullback and the growing injury crisis in the second row have led to a lot of calls for the return of Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan to an Irish jersey this week. I don’t see it happening.
The trouble with selecting Simon Zebo or Donnacha Ryan for the Irish side isn’t to do with on-field performance. Maybe it would increase Ireland’s ability to win against Scotland on Saturday. In fact, it definitely would because both of them, Ryan and Zebo, are really good players but the damage their selection would do to the provinces and, indeed, the IRFU itself, would be a lot more substantial than what you might think.
Let me explain why.
If Ireland selected Simon Zebo and/or Donnacha Ryan for Ireland it would mean an immediate and substantial increase in wages for their next round of renewals, especially in certain positions. That would apply to both IRFU central contracts and provincial deals and the effect would be potentially ruinous.
To understand why, you have to look at the environment that the IRFU are operating in at the moment. Things are going quite well at the moment, with the national side performing quite well, all four provinces in the knockout stages of their European competitions and sponsorship/revenue/public sentiment all up. But there are dangers lurking nearby that can steal away Irish rugby’s biggest asset – the players.
There are English clubs flush with their latest cash injection from the loan shark and French clubs backed by literal billionaires who are waiting to wave massive, oversized novelty cheques at Ireland’s top players.
Clubs like Racing 92, Stade Francais, Toulouse, Toulon, Saracens and even clubs like Sale Sharks as of late, can probably out bid the IRFU for any player they really wanted. They can offer sweeteners like accomodation, cars, help with schools for the kids and other little bits to make the move all the more tempting, on top of a bump in pay.
The IRFU couldn’t afford to match this for every player that gets offered it but what they can offer is managed game time, a chance to play and live at home and a chance to wear a green jersey. You’ll get a lot of things in Paris, Toulouse, Toulon or London, but you won’t get that. That difference – quality of life, quality of rugby health and a pathway to the pinnacle of the game – is how the IRFU can compete with the bigger money offers coming from outside the country.
So What If They Broke It?
Let’s say that Joe Schmidt decided today that, fuck it, he wants Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan in the squad for Saturday. What would that mean? Well, immediately, it would set a precedent that a few injuries in a position means that you get that Irish shirt and next time around, Racing 92 will be telling players that not only can they bump your pay, but they can also point to Simon Zebo and go, “hey, playing here didn’t stop him picking up a few caps last year so why join us for two years?”.
How could the IRFU tell them any different? Sure, the IRFU would still be able to compete for the very top, top players in the country – the likes of Murray, O’Mahony, Ryan, Furlong, Sexton, Ringrose, etc – but they’d have to pay extra to match what the English and French clubs would be offering now that they know that the international jersey would be out of the picture. But what about the guys below that level? The middle pack of Ireland’s depth chart is vital to our national performance but removing the need to play in Ireland to play for Ireland would mean they have no incentive to stay bar hoping they want to.
That change would put the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan, John Ryan, Dave Kilcoyne, Rob Herring, Andrew Conway and others into the sights of the English and French because while these guys are all first team players at provincial level, they aren’t currently guaranteed a spot in the Irish squad in a top level game with everyone fit.
“Everyone fit” is the key part though.
Right now, if they want test rugby there’s an element of patience while playing at home and waiting for an opportunity. The provinces benefit there, because they have a high quality player to play in the PRO14 during some test windows and generally improve your first team.
If the need to play in Ireland disappeared, all of a sudden the likes of Ruddock, Conan, Ryan, Kilcoyne, Conway and more become incrementally more expensive to hang on to when it comes to contract time because the idea that they have to be in Ireland to play for Ireland no longer would apply. Let’s say that Kilcoyne and Ryan decided to leave in a scenario where Zebo and Ryan could and can play for Ireland.
Injuries to Healy and McGrath would have the clamour for Kilcoyne to come in. A few injuries at tighthead would have people screaming for John Ryan. If the IRFU picks them – and pays them their match fee, which might be anything – Ireland “win” by having experienced, quality players available but the provinces lose because they don’t have access to those players anymore. If you’re a player in that circumstance, why not roll the dice on a few injuries at test level – that’s like rolling a dice with two sides – and rake in the cash down in La Rochelle, Toulon or Paris for a few years?
“Just play youngsters instead!”
Sure. I hope they’re good enough to regularly compete at the top end of the PRO14 and Europe, or else performance in the provinces would drop because there’s a huge gap between the 10/15 centrally contracted players and the young 19-23 year olds who have to take up the slack of the middle pack of players who are now ever more likely to head off to England and France.
Not all of them would go, for sure, but they would become more expensive to contract because competing English and French teams would know that a large barrier to signing Irish players no longer applies. How long until 6 or 7 of the Irish national team are playing in France or England? What message would that send to the younger players about the viability of playing in this country? The IRFU have done an excellent job of linking the provincial shirt to the Irish national shirt and when you break that link between province and test level it isn’t easily fixed.
“What about Johnny Sexton?”
Ireland did pick Johnny Sexton during his time in Racing 92 in the two years leading up to World Cup 2015 but I’m not sure you’ll find anyone in the IRFU that didn’t think it was a disaster. Ireland didn’t have access to Sexton as much as they would have liked (or as much as Schmidt would have thought as optimal anyway), they had no control over his game time or his medical management and, look, it was a disaster. Thankfully, Sexton thought the same and his example has been useful for players heavily involved in the test level bubble for what can go wrong when you head off for the cash money.
The four years since his return have been slowly and steadily built on the idea that you have to play in Ireland to play for Ireland. Has it been publicly announced? No, because that would tantamount to shooting yourself in the foot if you ever lose a player you literally can’t do without. But it’s there.
I don’t think the IRFU are going to break their system and the in-Ireland player eco-system they have spent time and money building up for Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan in a Six Nations before a World Cup, as good as both players are. There’s a lot more at stake than just the match points – it’s the entire contracting system that the provinces and union rely on, which is what the game in this country relies on to remain competitive from top to bottom.
In that context, I think we can make do. Because we have to.