It’s a topic that creates hours of debates in pubs and clubs all over the world; “who is the best foreign player to play here?” No matter what country, no matter what sport, the question provokes varied responses. In this short series for Action81.com , I want to pick the fifteen best and most influential players to have played professional rugby for the four Irish provinces.
I’ve set myself a few rules, largely to make the selections a little easier. Overseas players needn’t be internationals for other countries and can even be qualified under residency grounds, but they must not have declared for Ireland. This means Richardt Strauss and other IRFU “special projects” like the less successful Peter Borlase are out. I’m also sticking strictly with the professional game, as we don’t have the wealth of information about of these players, nor do we have the footage of them playing the game. It’s quite possible that Brent Pope’s days as a wing forward for Clontarf and St. Mary’s were the greatest ever seen on these shores, but he’s out too. Lastly, I’m only picking players in positions they’ve played. I’m sure Jean De Villiers was born to play blindside flanker, but he’ll only be considered at centre.
“The Best Players” is, naturally, a subjective term and I have no doubt many people will disagree with me. I have a term for these people: rugby fans. Let me know who you’d rank above my choices, and let’s enjoy the debate that brings.
The Front Row:
Let’s start at the very beginning, with numbers one, two and three. Front rows in Ireland have produced some wonderful characters, particularly at prop forward. In fact, many talking heads have laid the blame for Ireland’s woeful crop of homegrown props at the influx of foreign prop forwards. The truth is these commentators are putting the cart before the horse. Irish kids don’t scrummage from as early an age as their overseas counterparts, hence Ireland’s over-reliance on the indefatigable John Hayes for over 100 caps. That, however, is a debate for another day. Whatever the reason for their arrival, we have a wealth of foreign props to choose from, ranging from journeymen like Clint Newland to 50-cap legends like Ollie Le Roux.
The contenders include luminaries such as the aforementioned Andre-Henri Le Roux, who fast became a fan favourite with Leinster fans due mainly to his natural affability and appetite for the game. It obviously wasn’t his only appetite, as he was officially listed at a modest 21 stones in weight. When Ollie returned to Ireland to cover Leinster’s front row troubles on their way to their first Heineken Cup victory, that 21 stone description seemed to be less accurate than ever. The sight of Ollie, poured into a jersey that barely covered his premature sojourn into chicken-farming, was a highlight for the biggest crowd in club rugby at Croke Park. Le Roux was the youngest ever Springbok prop, but the brevity of his Irish adventure rules him out of our XV. Despite this, we should all raise a cheeseburger or two in honour of a man who loves life and just loved rugby.
Also missing out are some of Le Roux’s countrymen. From the current crop of prop forwards, the Munster duo of BJ Botha and Wian Du Preez come close. Both have become integral parts of a Munster squad finding a new direction under Rob Penney and are at the peak of their powers at relatively young ages for props. A similar tale could be told of Leinster’s Heinke Van Der Merwe. World Cup winner CJ Van Der Linde also just misses out. Despite being an animal in the scrum and a handy footballer in the loose, Christoffel Johannes’s uneasy relationship with the fans and the professional but unfriendly nature of his departure lessens his standing in Irish rugby.
Other honourable mentions go to Munster’s Italian stallion Federico Puciarello, the Argentine-born workhorse known in Musgrave Park as ‘Freddy’; Scottish journeyman Gordon McIlwham, who played two years in Munster while on his way to 16 caps for Scotland; and the only Englishman to get regular standing ovations in Dublin, Will Green.
The winners, however, are two players who are still active. One is still plying his trade in Ireland. On either side of the front row for the Overseas XV are Stan Wright and John Afoa.
Stan Wright, the highest paid athlete in the history of the Cook Islands, arrived at a mediocre Leinster in 2006, fresh from a stint with Super Rugby’s Blues. Far from suffering a culture shock like some antipodean imports, the ‘Cookie Monster’ (a charmingly insensitive nickname based on his place of origin) took to the Dublin atmosphere like a duck to water. By the time he followed Michael Cheika to Stade Français in 2011, he had amassed a substantial collection of honours. These included Celtic League and Heineken Cup medals, along with a place on the 2007/2008 Magners Dream Team and the award of IRUPA ‘Unsung Hero’ for 2008/2009. He also outlasted Cheika at Stade, and still packs down either side of their scrum.
Versatility is also a key facet of John Afoa’s game, as he has played all three front-row positions for New Zealand. It is not, however, the reason he makes this team. If he only played tighthead, he’d still be among the first names chosen for this list. His natural leadership and dynamic athleticism are a major driving force behind Ulster’s recent ascendance. A World Cup winner just last year, the 1062nd All Black made his international debut in Dublin and returned to Ireland to join Ulster after lifting the Webb Ellis Cup on home soil. His close friendship with Jerome Kaino led to rumours that the Auckland flanker would be joining Afoa in Belfast. This hasn’t materialised, but being half a world away from his mates hasn’t stopped Afoa actually improving his game at prop during his time at Ravenhill. If ever there was a reason for the IRFU to stop imposing silly contract conditions on overseas players at the provinces, it’s Ioane Fitu Afoa. Ulster fans are nothing short of privileged to see this supreme athlete every week, and if the IRFU cause him to leave Northern Ireland at the end of his two-and-a-half years, Irish Rugby will be all the weaker for it.
And now, no sniggering, but it’s time to choose a hooker. This position caused me the most trouble of any. As bad as we are at producing props, we’ve been excellent at producing a long line of lineout throwers. Keith Wood succeeded Terry Kingston and since then we’ve had Jerry Flannery, Rory Best, Sean Cronin and the recently qualified Richardt Strauss. While I was overjoyed to see Strauss belt out ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ in Lansdowne Road against the country of his birth, I didn’t realise it would make an article I would sit down to write a month later an absolute nightmare to write. The crop of overseas hookers is severely limited, as countries tend to nurture and retain their best darts throwers. Andy Kyriacou would’ve been an honourable mention at least, but the Scouse hooker declared for Ireland rather than Cyprus during his time at Ulster. That leaves us with very few options. Another nearly-man is ex-Leinster player Harry Vermaas. Vermaas did reach the heights of the South African Under-21 side, but hasn’t pushed on from there, and now plays Currie Cup rugby back home. It would have been cheating to play Afoa at hooker here, as Ulster haven’t utilised the big man’s versatility in the same way the All Blacks have. While that would have made life easier, and would have allowed me to pick the legendary Ollie Le Roux, I couldn’t bring myself to play the best overseas prop in the country out of position.
So the best of a very bad lot, but still a talented professional, is Connacht’s current back-up hooker Ethienne Reynecke. Reynecke made a small splash in England after Brendan Venter brought him to Saracens in 2009. Connacht brought him over in 2011 to add strength in depth behind Adrian Flavin. Reynecke has managed to keep his place on the bench ahead of Jason Harris-Wright so far this season, and does a good job of pushing Flavin for the starting role. While that’s not the level of praise I expected to be heaping on my best overseas XV, we’re just too good at finding and keeping hold of hookers. I said no sniggering.
EDIT: This column originally included mention of Owen Finnegan but as he never played front row in Ireland, he isn’t able to be considered.
The team so far:
Stan Wright (Cook Islands) – Leinster
Ethienne Reynecke (South Africa) – Connacht
John Afoa (New Zealand) – Ulster
Part two is up next Wednesday when Peter picks his two second row players.
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