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Dublin: 15 °C Saturday 8 August, 2020

The IRFU is serious about bringing in Irish-qualified talent from around the world

Joe Lydon explains what he’ll be doing as head of the union’s new IQ Rugby programme.

THE CHANGE TO rugby’s residency regulation means unions who have been using the three-year qualification process to add depth to their playing stocks are currently having a rethink.

The IRFU see themselves as being ahead of the curve already, as they look to tap into what they believe is a major advantage – the number of Irish-qualified people around the world.

Joe Lydon, who formerly occupied similar positions in England and Wales, is heading up the IRFU’s new IQ Rugby programme, which the union first revealed details of earlier this week, just before World Rugby confirmed the tweaks to Regulation 8.

Rugby Union - RBS 6 Nations Championship 2005 - Wales v England - Millennium Stadium Lydon [right] was an England assistant under Andy Robinson. Source: EMPICS Sport

A former rugby league star for Wigan and Great Britain – and apparently something of a drop-goal specialist – Lydon has previously been an England assistant coach and head coach of the England 7s, meaning his background is diverse.

His previous two posts in charge of the development pathways in England and Wales mean his network in the UK is strong, and that’s where IQ Rugby is beginning its support for, and search for, Irish-qualified players who could play for the provinces and the national team in the future.

“Regulation 8 means it’s no longer efficient or effective to be chasing a time-serving player,” says Lydon. “By the time you have waited five years to get him there [Test rugby], he is probably ready for retirement.

“And I have never actually been convinced that getting a time-serving player is good for the culture of a team.”

The IQ programme will focus only on Irish-qualified talent, i.e. players or athletes who do not need to serve a residency period in order to play for Ireland.

Along with that essential requirement, Lydon – whose grandparents are from Oughterard, Galway – says that any players involved will have to state a clear desire to play for Ireland.

“These players, male or female, have to want to play for Ireland and have to be able to play within the regulations,” says Lydon, whose title is ‘head of international talent ID and development’.

“They have to be born here themselves, have an Irish parent or an Irish grandparent; so seven chances. Then you don’t have to wait, you don’t have to spend that energy and you don’t have to persuade yourself or the player that they are Irish when they’re not.

“We want players and coaches to have that connection already. We are not going to chase someone that’s playing in Moseley or playing in the Brumbies and say, ‘We’ll work with you for five years and then you’ll be qualified.’”

Lydon sees the potential scale for IQ Rugby as “huge” and says the programme already has hundreds of UK-based players in its database, with support being delivered to some of them, meetings being held with players’ parents, and contact being made directly with players’ clubs. The support for players will be wide-ranging.

Kieran Treadwell Kieran Treadwell is a recent example of an Irish-qualified player moving to Ireland from the UK. Source: Presseye/Matt Mackey/INPHO

“Mentoring, nutrition, lifestyle, you name it; anything that we feel is missing once we have done that assessment,” says Lydon.

IQ Rugby will work closely with the Irish Exiles, who will continue their excellent work through the likes of Wayne Mitchell, but this programme is another layer on top of that identification and support network.

While the programme has been running in the UK since Lydon started full-time in February, this is just the start of the plans for IQ Rugby. The IRFU believe there are players to come from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere in the world.

“Of the 301 million people in America, 49 million are of Irish descent; that’s eight times bigger than the Irish population,” says Lydon.

“So there are people out there, but we want the people who want to come back and play for Ireland.”

The numbers of Irish-qualified talent in South Africa have already surprised the union, with the move of former Sharks U18 out-half Angus Curtis to Ulster this season being a case in point.

Curtis, whose father and grandfather played for Ireland, is now an Ireland U19 international and part of Ulster’s academy system. Others may follow him.

Lydon says it is difficult to put an exact age bracket on the players they are scouring the UK and further afield for.

“There is none really, because we are a late-maturation sport. The younger you go, the harder it is to identify it or the bigger the risk that you won’t get it right. Everybody starts to mature at 16, 17, 18.

“There are a lot of players in rugby who we try to load too early, who we break before we actually get them there.

“I am going to say that if I have to pick an age band, it would be between 17 and 21.

“Rugby is a late-maturation sport and particularly in specific positions. You can have players who don’t mature until they’re 23. So it would be daft to look at 16-year-old, but you naturally do because everybody spots a talent that’s good. Everyone chases that talent.”

Angus Curtis Zimbabwe-born out-half Angus Curtis was raised in South Africa and is now part of Ulster's academy system and an Ireland U19 international. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Intriguingly, Lydon also plans to search other sports for Irish-qualified talent that could potentially become part of the IQ Rugby system.

If that is to be a real source, sevens rugby will be a key stepping stone. Already an IQ Rugby side is up and running, with Kevin Maggs having led them on the first leg of the Super Sevens Series last week, while they will play at the Dublin 7s today in Old Belvedere RFC.

“Sevens is a great way to bring them into ruby under a magnifying glass,” says Lydon. “You can take an athlete that may have played basketball and put him in a sevens environment.

“You can take a female athlete now who may have been a fresher at university and within five years or four or three could be an Olympian in rugby. There are multiple opportunities and different ways of doing it. It’s not just rugby talent, however it is a lot easier when it is rugby talent because they have an idea and experience.

“The universities [in the UK] is a great hotbed for rugby talent, men’s and women’s, so we will be looking at all those networks that exist, all those teams, all those hotbeds and saying which players or people have got an opportunity to play in Ireland.”

It will be interesting to see how clubs in the UK respond to IQ Rugby, but Lydon and IRFU performance director David Nucifora have already held meetings with the RFU to discuss their plans and methods, with encouraging feedback.

Lydon doesn’t foresee clashes in this regard, as long as there is transparency and open discussion directly with the clubs, players and their parents, which the IQ Rugby head says will always be the case.

Indeed, the reaction from clubs themselves so far has been positive, according to Lydon.

“It may well be about working with clubs, the Premiership clubs maybe, to say, ‘OK, you have a player who is desperate to play for Ireland, he may be dual-qualified, so what’s the best thing for him?’

“They’re in the same market so they will want to develop the player as well, for England or Scotland or anybody else. The player will make the decision where he wants to go.

“We’re not going to force anyone to do anything, not press gang anyone. We want to provide opportunity and let the programme and their own drive decide where they want to go.”

Sam Arnold Munster's Sam Arnold is another to move from the UK in recent years. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A player like Kieran Treadwell is an interesting case study for IQ Rugby.

The 21-year-old Ulster lock – born in England to an Irish mother – played for the Ireland Exiles U18 side, before switching back to England U18s and then playing for England at U20 level.

However, he has ended up in Ireland this season with Ulster and looks a fine bet to play for Joe Schmidt’s national team this summer.

While it may seem odd for a player to switch between nations at underage levels, or perhaps not even represent Ireland at all, Lydon doesn’t necessarily see that as being a reason to delete their name from IQ Rugby’s database and withdraw all support.

“We have got players now that I am working with, who we are talking to, who to be dead straight with you, continue playing in the English system,” explains Lydon. “We have said this to the RFU: ‘We want to support the player.’

“It may be in the best interests of a player, in his development plan, that he carries on playing for a [different] national team or a representative team but he is still Irish-qualified. If he is not captured, if he is not playing for the second team down or the sevens team in any one union, then he carries on.

“We are working with players already, long before I came on board, who may be within a union, and playing for their national teams – as Kieran Treadwell, played 20s and 18s and the rest of it – then decided to come across.

“Let’s be clear about this, this is professionalism, this is about players maximising their potential and having the opportunity to play provincially, if that’s what they want, and we see an opportunity for them also nationally.”

24-year-old Leicester Tigers man George McGuigan is a good example of a slightly older player who may be part of the picture for IQ Rugby, given the ongoing need for greater depth at hooker in Ireland.

McGuigan played for Ireland at U18 and U20 level, but featured for the England Saxons last year. However, the Saxons played a South Africa A team that was not nominated as their union’s second national side, so McGuigan remains Irish-qualified.

“If the decision was by us and him that he wanted to come across and play, then yeah,” says Lydon. “There is no age band on it.”

George McGuigan Former Ireland U20 hooker George McGuigan is currently playing in the Premiership with Leicester. Source: Jean Claude Le Boulicaut/INPHO

It will be fascinating to see what IQ Rugby delivers for the IRFU in the coming seasons, but Lydon is confident that the pool of Irish-qualified players abroad is big enough to make an impact.

“Success has to be Ireland as a national team doing well, but it may be that it means that there are no IQ players involved, that they are all home grown, which would be fantastic.”

“But if developing overseas talent that is Irish-qualified helps the national team, then that’s the massive tick for me. You want everyone in Ireland to be playing rugby and retained in rugby and playing well.

“What we are trying to do is add to it and support it and if there are any gaps, we can add more.

“If we can have five deep in every position for Ireland, whether they come from Birmingham in England or Birmingham in America, it doesn’t matter as long as they are Irish-qualified.”

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Murray Kinsella

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