Rugby Union

Ireland rugby's Kleyn call sets the wrong tone - as does Croke Park

Ireland's Devin Toner has been replaced in the World Cup squad by South African Jean Kleyn.

I’M sorry, but, like Devin Toner, I’m out.

Even if the rugby team representing Ireland causes a shock and actually reaches a World Cup semi-final for the first time ever, I’ll not be cheering them on.

Jean Kleyn might be a very good player, he’s probably a very nice bloke – but he’s not Irish.

Yet the South African has been drafted into the Ireland squad for the forthcoming World Cup, having only qualified on residency less than a month ago.

What’s worse, he has taken the place of Devin Toner.

Toner is an icon of Irish rugby. To illustrate this, I was chatting with a colleague on Monday who’s not a rugby head by any means. The conversation turned to the suitability to play rugby of his son, who’s very tall for his age.

Who did my colleague mention, with no awareness whatsoever of the breaking news about the Ireland squad? Yep, Devin Toner.

A man who has served his country with distinction for the best part of a decade. The man that head coach Joe Schmidt has selected most during his tenure.

Yet no matter whose place Kleyn would have taken, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable about it.

Let me be very clear: I’d be more than happy to welcome any South African – or anyone from anywhere - to become part of any Ireland team as long as he or she actually lived on this island for a reasonable length of time first, or had some family connection, through parentage or grand-parentage.”

In world terms, we’re a small population to pick from and it makes sense to maximise our player pool.

Let me also re-iterate my objection and distaste for the term ‘new Irish’, applied to people who have come to make their lives here. If Ireland is their home, then they’re Irish in my eyes.

However, I’d suspect that Kleyn isn’t planning to make Ireland his permanent home.

Besides, in terms of international sport, surely the connection has to be more than passing the ridiculously low residency threshold set by World Rugby, of just three years?

There’s already an acknowledgement that 36 months is too short a time, with the requirement set to be increased to five years at the end of 2020.

That will be scant consolation to Devin Toner now though.

In my view the bar should be even higher, a minimum of seven years. At the very least, the residency requirement should amount to a quarter of your life, with the ‘tariff’ set at the time of your arrival, if you come here after the age of 16 so that it doesn’t keep rising.

Here’s the key question: is this international rugby or simply a game of mercenaries and franchises?

I’m all for freedom of movement, but players can move for money on the club/ provincial scene.

There’s a difference between making your life somewhere and making a living there for a few years.

The Ireland squad has already included CJ Stander, who joined Munster in 2012, and ‘Bundee’ Aki, who came to Connacht in 2014.

Half a dozen others have been given their chance, with Kleyn the latest to make the breakthrough.

As an aside, all of them would have picked to play for their home nation - if their home nation had picked them.

Sure, some will say ‘These are the rules, everyone else is doing it’. True; but that still doesn’t make it right.

There’s a certain irony that ‘World Rugby’ isn’t doing anywhere near enough to encourage rugby across the world, certainly not in the Pacific island nations.

Players of Fijian, Samoan, and Tongan extraction have greatly boosted New Zealand, Australia, and England.

Imagine how good the Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga teams would be had they been able to call on all the players whose parents moved to those richer nations.

Half this year’s Australia World Cup squad have connections with one of Fiji, Samoa, or Tonga.

That is partly a consequence of economic factors, the lure of better lives in Australia and New Zealand, often with families moving first to the latter and then on to the former.

Yet some players only move as teenagers, with a strong sense that they are attracted by the ‘All Blacks’ and ‘Wallabies’ brands, who have spotted these rugby talents and brought them into their ranks.

It’s obviously positive that Australia is represented by players of such diverse heritage, not just those of British and Irish extraction.

Yet it would be even more positive for rugby as a world game if the likes of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga could genuinely challenge the traditional powers. They need financial help to do so, but so far they’ve been given very little.

Understandably Irish rugby wants to punch above its weight on the world stage.

But when someone like big Devin is cast aside in favour of a South African blow-in, then that sits very uncomfortably with many, myself included.

If that’s what’s needed to win, or even have a chance of winning, I don’t want any part of it.

 

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At most parties, the host chooses the music. That rule also applies when someone gives you a lift – the driver is the ‘DJ’.

Not so in the GAA.

It may seem minor, not a key factor, but there were a couple of discordant moments around the All-Ireland Senior Football Final, mood music which struck major bum notes.

First, shortly before the game itself, a stadium announcer whipped up the crowd, heralding ‘A song we can all join in on!’

What would it be, I wondered: ‘If you’re happy and you know it’? ‘Baby Shark’? ‘Call Me Senorita’?

No, it was ‘Dublin in the rare ould times’. Performed by Phelim Drew, son of Ronnie. Yep, Ronnie Drew of ‘The Dubliners’ fame.

We waited for a Kerry equivalent, perhaps ‘The Rose of Tralee’. No. Nothing. Nil.

When my colleague Cahair O’Kane noted this on Twitter, there were predictable responses from some, suggesting that `This is done for every county’.

Except it isn’t. There was no subsequent song for Kerry.

Then, with the second half about to start, David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ blasted out as the Dublin players ran out.

I was genuinely waiting for the Kerry team to follow, and picked up my mobile phone to take a short video of the Kingdom men emerging.

Then I looked up - and saw that they were already on the pitch.

No fanfare for the Kingdom – just as there had been none for Mayo in the semi-finals.

Talk about setting a certain tone.

‘Croke Park’, aka the GAA, are sounding out the message loud and clear: that Croke Park is Dublin’s home.

Everyone else is only there on sufferance. The message is ‘Wipe your feet, take your beating, and go home’.

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