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Gordon D'Arcy: Foreign signings put Irish provinces on European map

Fardy and Lowe following in proven footsteps of likes of Williams, Nacewa, Aki and Elsom

There are several reasons for the continued success of the Irish provinces. Home grown talent will always matter. Some brilliant coaching tickets have proved essential while a little luck here and there is definitely needed.

When we go through the six European titles Leinster and Munster share between them and Connacht's Pro 12 title, the foreign influence is undeniable.

I’m talking about Bundee Aki in 2016. Jim Williams, the player then assistant coach, helped Munster reach the promised land in 2006. Not sure they would have made it without the added South African ingredients of Trevor Halstead and Shaun Payne.

In 2008 they had the All Blacks’ record try scorer on the field. Dougie Howlett continues to make an impression in their back office while Lifeimi Mafi, I’m sure, will be welcome in Limerick until the end of his days.


Leinster have had their share of Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans and an Argentinian. A glaring difference between Leinster and Munster nowadays is what Scott Fardy and James Lowe are able to do when it really matters. I think it's safe to say they were the difference against Toulouse.

Last year Leinster captured a fourth European title without Lowe but I'm not so sure they can beat Saracens in Newcastle if both men are not in the starting XV. Lowe sets the tempo like Mike Catt used to do for England and Geordan Murphy for Leicester. He abandons his position, colours outside the lines. Goes and gets the ball when hard yards are needed. Game changers are what will figure out these English champions.

That’s next week’s problem.

With Bundee on deck, Connacht will always have a chance of winning in Belfast. Same can be said for Ulster so long as Marcell Coetzee is out foxing opposing backrowers at the breakdown.

Munster can turn this theory on its head. In fairness to Jean Kleyn, he comes into the Irish second row conversation next year. He’s been a decent servant.

But look at the Leinster recruits from abroad. From Isa to, well, Isa the four titles would not have been won without them. We would not have made the final without Felipe Contepomi and Chris Whitaker in 2009. Felipe missed the victory over Leicester in Murrayfield but we know all about the player he was keeping benched. And the fact he's back on staff this season tells you plenty.

Leinster brought in some great props over the years. CJ van der Linde was injured more than he played but we did get glimpses of the best prop on the planet. He’d eat opponents in scrums. An awesome specimen.

Profound influence

CJ's predecessor, Ollie le Roux, actually had a more pronounced influence on Cian Healy and the young props.

Now, some fellas have come and gone fairly quickly but Leinster get it spot on more than they have brought in duds (most of them looked the part on paper or watching them in Super Rugby).

I could write about Isa Nacewa all day. You saw what he did in the 2009 and 2018 finals. Stan Wright came from well below the radar to have a stellar five years with us before Cheika, understandably, took him to Paris.

Nathan Hines goes down as a journeyman professional (professional being the key word) and while he arguably caused us more trouble afterwards as a Clermont lock, his hardness seemed irreplaceable when he moved on after 2011.

Brad Thorn more than filled the gap. Thorn left a legacy with regards to preparation before and after training that Leinster can always reference.

We simply watched and copied his standards. Nobody could replicate his power, even at age 37.

But perhaps the biggest impact by any foreign player ever on Irish rugby belongs to Rocky Elsom. Not the most valuable, that’s Isa, or sustained, Isa again, but impact-wise what Rocky did in 2008/09 stands the test of 10 years.

Rocky was special. The best blindside in the world came to do a specific job.

He was the most enigmatic foreign player I can remember. He was a decent enough guy but none of us really got to know him. Sport is primarily about bonding on the pitch and Rocky optimised this when he played, and the odd time he trained. Cheika knew how to get the best out of the player and the person, leaving him to his own devices when it came to conditioning and preparation.

He earned his hefty salary. No team wants more than one, maybe two players like him in the squad as it can disrupt the culture. There should be exceptions for a Rocky Elsom but in the same breath Nacewa, Thorn and Fardy perform similar heroic feats while also raising standards off the pitch.

We adopted an under-12s mentality in many games that season. Give the ball to the big fella and pile after him. It worked, especially against Munster at Croke Park.

The game has changed dramatically since 2009. Back then you could just run with the ball. Evasion or mismatches were still primary weapons because those situations were easier to create than today.

Now they take time, calculated double digit phases can, if implemented with exactitude, create situations to launch Jordan Larmour or Garry Ringrose against their opposite numbers.

Rewards defence

There are plenty more ‘Rocky’ attackers to carry into ‘Rocky’ defenders. Two years later Elsom captained the Wallabies at the World Cup where one of his famous charging runs was met by an even more ferocious Kieran Read tackle.

In 2019 the game rewards defence over attack. Look at Saracens against Munster. Look at England against Ireland. Finding the all important edge is what makes Joe Schmidt and Stuart Lancaster so valuable to Ireland and Leinster.

I see Munster are on record stating they are in the market for an attack coach.

The sport itself has not changed that much. Numbers into the breakdown have dwindled significantly so that clogs up the space.

England under Eddie Jones went so far as to experiment with one man clean outs. It backfired spectacularly against Scotland in 2018 but they will presumably return to it in slightly different form because it's the best way to create an advantage elsewhere.

Ireland under Schmidt seek to attack at every opportunity but there there are less opportunities so a multi-phase platform is essential.

Not sure Wales have evolved much under Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards. They do what they do very well – swarm all over the opportunity when it presents itself. Wales stay in games. Quick ball, same as it always was, is their speciality. Without pace on turnovers Wales, New Zealand, every team can be made look ordinary.

Even Saracens.

Perhaps we don’t see any of the Welsh franchises at the business end of the Pro 14 because they so rarely put much stock, or finances, into foreign influencers. The Ospreys side from a few years ago had Tommy Bowe. Scarlets were lucky to come across Tadhg Beirne. Their best Kiwis recruits tend to be project players who graduate to the national side.

That could be the fine margin that keeps them below the play-off line.

Either way, they are relying on Leinster to gift them a second team in next season’s Champions Cup. Presumably, that’s a major concern. The Pro 14 needs them to sort out their problems. The Irish provinces need them as competitive opposition.

It won’t damage their national aspirations. There is lots of proof that it enhances the Ireland team.

James Ryan spoke recently about Fardy making him think differently about the game. Hearing that Fardy is bringing on Ryan tells us all we need to know about the latest Australian earning a rugby wage in Dublin.

Fardy doesn’t train that much either but, like Rocky, who cares once he keeps doing what he does in the great tradition of Hines and Thorn.

The lead in to European finals – even this far out – brings happy memories. The best of days that we will remember later this month when we meet up for our class of 2009 reunion.

I hear Rocky's flying in for our May 28th get together. Johnny, Dev, Cian, Fergus, Seánie, Rob and Dave Kearney remain in the current squad. Should be a good night. Leinster may or may not have two more trophies in the bank by then.

Starting down in Limerick and up in Belfast, there are some tasty rugby weekends ahead.