By Victoria Prince
It was 2011 when the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) held a press conference revealing their plans to further limit the number of international rugby players allowed on provincial teams.
The new rule stated that, from the 2013-2014 season onwards, only one “non-Irish eligible” (NIE) player could be contracted to play in each of the 15 field positions across the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster – meaning one foreign player per position across all three teams – and that going forward, all future NIE player contracts would be “position specific”.
Yet today, more than a year after the change came into play, there is still a large international presence within Irish rugby, with some 29 non-Irish-born players across all provincial teams bar Connacht.
“It is essential that the Ireland team is given every opportunity to remain competitive at international level and to do that, it requires Irish-qualified players to gain continuous experience at club and provincial level,” says Stephen McNamara, the IRFU’s director of communications and media, who notes that “non-Irish qualified players have delivered much value and support to the success of the provincial teams and development of Irish players over the last number of years.”
McNamara also says that the challenges for the IRFU and provincial teams “are to continue to try to be successful at all levels.
“The provincial teams have contributed hugely to the achievements of the Ireland team, but it is important to remember that the Ireland team is the marquee competitive outlet for the game in Ireland and also the financial mechanism that funds rugby at all levels.”
Beyond Ireland, the movement towards more homogenous national teams is a growing trend, with England and France instituting similar policies regulating the number of international players in recent years.
Sports lawyers have described these types of changes as “directly discriminatory” towards the international rugby community. But are they less about discrimination against NIE players and more about supporting Irish-qualified talent? Both sides have a point to make.