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 Action 81.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 Second Row:
The engine rooms of the most successful Irish teams have always featured some homegrown strength and talent. The names of Irish lock forwards have been among the first provincial coaches jotted down for the entire professional era. Bridging the amateur and professional eras was Malcolm O’Kelly, who turned in his fledgling career as an engineer to turn out for London Irish in those heady days of the mid-90s. After a four-year spell with the Exiles, ‘Big Mal’ returned home to see out his playing days with Leinster. His deft touch and athleticism belied his 6’8” frame, as was evidenced by a 50m gallop to score a breakaway try against Pontypridd. As O’Kelly’s days in the professional game ended, he was joined on Irish teamsheets by Leo Cullen, Donncha O’Callaghan, Bob Casey of London Irish and the imperious Paul O’Connell. Despite this wealth of talent in the second row, embodied today by young rookies like Iain Henderson and not-so-young rookies like Mike McCarthy, the provinces have long imported top-class lock forwards to bolster their ranks. Strength in depth is vital in the scrum, and Munster provide a great example of exactly how vital. If ‘irreplaceable’ ever comes up in a game of Pictionary, just sketch a picture of Paul O’Connell – complete with pint of milk, fresh from the cow – and you’ll be sure to score highly. With a waning O’Callaghan and increased pressure on the dynamic Donnacha Ryan, O’Connell’s back injury is arguably the worst on-field calamity to have ever happened to an Irish provincial team; even worse than O’Driscoll’s injury woes at Leinster. Reliable locks are among the vital components a team needs.
So who are the foreign imports that give these Irish giants a run for their money? Among the nominees who didn’t make the team is Munster’s Aussie import John Langford. Langford first visited Ireland on tour with Sydney University and came within a whisker of signing for Leinster in 1999, until Malcolm O’Kelly negotiated a return to Donnybrook from Sunbury. Langford quickly established himself as Munster’s primary lineout target and Limerick’s favourite Australian, two positions he would hold for four years. A precursor to modern behemoths such as O’Connell, Langford returned to his roots for a final two-year stint with Sydney University after his time at Thomond.
Also missing out, but only just, is another antipodean titan. In early 2012, Brad Thorn – an international for Australia in rugby league and New Zealand in rugby union – had just finished the season with Fukuoka Sanix Blues in Japan. He had flown to Japan hot on the heels of winning the Rugby World Cup with the All Blacks and many observers felt that Thorn, having just turned 37, was overdue an off-season to recharge his batteries. Thorn, however, felt differently. Leinster had lost young South African Steven Sykes for the foreseeable future and needed cover for Leo Cullen and Devin Toner. Thorn answered the call with aplomb, becoming the oldest player to play in a Heineken Cup Final, pipping one Ulster’s Stefan Terblanche on the day. Heineken Cup medal safely in his pocket, Thorn returned to Japan, before announcing this year that he will spend his 19th year of professional rugby with the Otago Highlanders back in New Zealand. Brad Thorn is one of the greatest second row forwards to have ever played either code of rugby; only the short amount of time he spent in Leinster colours rules him out of our team.
Another tough call to leave out was current Ulster captain Johann Muller. A World Cup winner with South Africa, Muller signed for the Belfast team in 2010. He had already proven his leadership qualities with the Natal Sharks and, on two occasions, with the Springboks, but it was still a huge indication of the good standing he enjoys up north that he was awarded the Ulster captaincy shortly afterwards. Muller is an energetic footballer and a natural scrummager, who faces challenges with great relish week in, week out. The BBC have described him as both ‘hard-nosed’ and ‘abrasive’, so they still haven’t forgiven him for pounding the English pack in the 2007 RWC final. That alone should see him on the team, but for the contributions of our eventual winners.
The two locks I have chosen to pack down behind our front three are Michael Swift and Nathan Hines. Both have contributed in different ways to the provinces they have played, or still play, for.
Swift, born in England to Irish parents, played professional rugby for Richmond RFC before that historic club’s senior arm was swallowed by London Irish. Irish had no room for a young openside flanker, despite his fitting their fan demographic perfectly. He found a new home, and a new position in the second row, at Leeds Tykes before his old Richmond coach, John Kingston, took over at Galwegians in 2000. Thirteen years later, Swift can still be seen cheering on Galwegians’ efforts on rainy days in Galway; when he’s not decked out in Connacht’s strip, that is. Connacht’s longest-serving player and record cap-holder, Swift is considered by all as an Irish player from London. As such, it could be argued that rules him out under our rules. His versatility and grit went unnoticed by successive Irish coaches and, barring a strange decision by Declan Kidney in February, he will finish his career in the city he loves without an international cap. The importance he has for Connacht and their fans ensure that Ireland’s loss is our XV’s gain, as the Londoner with a grá for Galway packs down behind Stan Wright in our tight five.
Joining Swift is one of the greatest locks in European club rugby, still operating at an incredibly high level and looking good to help deliver Clermont Auvergne the Heineken Cup they so desperately crave. Nathan Hines was born in John Langford’s home town of Wagga Wagga in 1976 and never looked like top-class material while playing rugby league as a youngster. He took a rugby holiday to the land of his grandmother’s birth as a twenty-two year old, intending only to stay in Scotland for six months. He lined out for border club Gala as a trialist, securing the short-term deal he wanted. Thirteen years later, he retired from test rugby with 77 Scottish caps and a place in the heart of every Scottish rugby fan. His time at Leinster coincided with the province’s arrival at the absolute peak of European rugby, and by the time he reluctantly headed for France he had a shiny Heineken Cup medal in his kitbag, having scored the try that represented the final nail in Northampton’s coffin in that epic comeback. Hines and Leinster both wanted to agree a new contract, but the IRFU couldn’t see the logic of offering a thirty-four year old family man any more than a one-year contract extension. Clermont Auvergne offered him a longer deal and Hines, a fluent French speaker from his Perpignan days, moved his family to Place de Jaude in the Massif Central. With the exception of Brad Thorn’s loan deal of early 2012, Leinster have yet to replace his influence in the lineout and the scrum.
Both this missing influence, and the high esteem Hines’ old teammates hold him in, were on display in the recent back-to-back defeats to Clermont that have all but ended Leinster’s Heineken Cup defence. Hines was arguably the best lock to have ever played in Ireland, but thanks to a governing body that thinks ‘professional’ means a doctor or an architect, the Top 14 are now enjoying his versatility and determination.
The team so far:
1. Stan Wright (Cook Islands) – Leinster
2. Ethienne Reynecke (South Africa) – Connacht
3. John Afoa (New Zealand) – Ulster
4. Mike Swift (England) – Connacht
5. Nathan Hines (Scotland) – Leinster
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