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, 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 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 scrum-half and the fly-half are the field generals of any rugby team, fulfilling the various purposes that American football has delegated to a single player: the quarterback. Irish rugby has been producing quality fly-halves for generations. Tony Ward and Ollie Campbell were top scorers on consecutive Lions tours, and were succeeded in the green jersey by the likes of Elwood, Humphreys, O’Gara and current incumbent Jonny Sexton. Scrum-half never seemed as important in the IRFU’s notebook though, as the level of trust given to Tom Tierney and Conor McGuinness – who were simply the best we had in a dark period for Irish rugby. It took the appointment of Warren Gatland in the middle of the 1998 Five Nations Competition for the national team to start reassessing the position and its importance. With his introduction against Scotland the following year, Peter Stringer became the most solid and immovable scrum-half Ireland had seen since Michael Bradley half a decade before. In his successor, Conor Murray, the Irish scrum-half has an archetype – the foil to the gamesmaster at no. 10, the sniper, the box-kicker, the tenacious little scrummy.
So the half-back positions have been filled by Irish players of varying ability, from Brian O’Meara to Eoin Reddan; from Mark McHugh to Ronan O’Gara, but who are the foreign imports who made these positions their own? One player not up for consideration is the spectacularly unfortunate Eddie Hekenui. Signed by the brain trust of Brent Pope and Matt Williams, Hekenui played, on paper, for St Mary’s College and Leinster. In reality, he wasn’t as bad as he has been made out to be. Eddie ‘Heineken’ had the bad luck not to screw up often, but to screw up memorably. Once, when playing Northampton in the Heineken Cup at Donnybrook, Hekenui had a simple penalty kick to touch to give Leinster valuable field position. The ball sliced off his boot and smacked into the old scoreboard, much to the amusement of the crowd. What’s often forgotten is that Hekenui subsequently masterminded a comeback victory for a Leinster team unused to fighting against adversity. Despite his talent, Hekenui was eclipsed by his successors in blue and can’t make our team. Neil Francis still makes jokes about him, thirteen years on, which is just a little harsh. Those who followed him in the number ten shirt for Leinster were of a much higher calibre; Matt Leek, Nathan Spooner and David Holwell added a touch of class to Leinster teams, and helped set up the eastern province as a European powerhouse.
Down south, Paul Warwick deserves an honourable mention, but his versatility allows me to consider him in other positions, so I will. Likewise the incomparable Contepomi, who was equally effective at stand-off and centre.
The candidate I’ve opted for is another Australian-born Scot, in the mould of Nathan Hines. Daniel Arthur Parks was born in New South Wales, but set off as a young man to make his fortune in European rugby. He played for Leeds Tykes before joining Glasgow Warriors and declaring for Scotland thanks to a maternal grandfather from Ayrshire. It was at Glasgow that things turned sour for the tremendously talented Parks, as a slew of off-field incidents culminated in an 18-month driving ban and an international exile. A weaker man might have caved, like we’ve seen Danny Care and Jimmy Cowan do when given endless chances. Parks fought his demons and returned to the Scotland side with a bang, picking up three man-of-the-match awards out of his four appearances in the 2010 Six Nations. Two years later, Parks – now a Cardiff Blues player – realised his international career was over and stepped aside for the next generation, in the shape of Greig Laidlaw. His signing by Connacht came as somewhat of a shock for a fanbase used to seeing mid-level imports such as George Naoupu and Ray Ofisa. In bringing in Parks, Connacht had done the unthinkable. They had signed a star. I know Parks is only in his first season, but just look at the role he has played in Connacht’s sterling home performances in their second Heineken Cup. He’s a game-changing player and current Connacht fans are lucky to be able to watch him strut his stuff in Galway.
Inside Parks, feeding him solid ball, is one of the world’s greatest scrum-halves – a world cup winner with his southern hemisphere nation, and a solid leader of men. That could actually apply to either of the two standout candidates for the number nine shirt on our team. Narrowly missing out is Leinster’s inspirational vice-captain and world cup-winning Wallaby Chris Whitaker. Whitaker’s three seasons with Leinster saw the ‘ladyboys’ emerge from Munster’s shadow and become the dominant force in Irish, if not European rugby. When Felipe Contepomi was withdrawn from the Heineken Cup Semi-Final against Munster with a season-ending injury, Whitaker jogged across the whole field to be the first to speak to his young replacement and to tell Jonny Sexton that his time had come. Whitaker’s last act as a player was to help Leo Cullen to lift Leinster’s first European Cup – not a bad way to round off a stellar career.
It would take a special talent to displace Whitaker from this team, and like our out-half, it’s a current player who claims the jersey. Ruan Pienaar was first linked with Ulster in early 2007, when he was a young and untested utility back. By the time he joined in 2010, he was already one of the best scrum-halves in world rugby, with a 2007 Rugby World Cup medal in his bag. Equally comfortable at either half-back position, Pienaar has introduced a new type of dynamic, controlling and dominant scrum-half to Irish rugby, and that’s why he edges it at that position. Any opponents of foreign players playing in Ireland need only look north and see what Pienaar’s mentoring has done for both Paddy Jackson and Paul Marshall. Like Parks, Pienaar is a rare type of player, one we are privileged to see play on this island.
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
6. Rocky Elsom (Australia) – Leinster
7. Jim Williams (Australia) – Munster
8. Nick Williams (New Zealand) – Munster & Ulster
9. Ruan Pienaar (South Africa) – Ulster
10. Dan Parks (Scotland) – Connacht
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