Irish Rugby stars making their name abroad

Updated: April 15, 2012

Irish rugby is often accused of an aversion to unleashing talented young players into high-level competition. The simple fact is that with Ireland having just four professional teams, three of whom are Heineken Cup regulars; opportunities are extremely limited for young players.

Moving abroad in search of a contract is not a traditionally popular route for Irish players. However, it is increasingly becoming a valid option for ambitious youngsters. In the English Championship (second tier) there are currently over 20 Irish players contracted, with another 15 in the Aviva Premiership. There are also a handful of Irish professionals plying their trade in Italy and France.

It can only be a good thing for Irish rugby that these guys are actually playing professional rugby rather than wasting their careers on the bench or in an academy. Irish players’ agents need to be more aware of the opportunities abroad. While it’s never easy to move away from home, these players can earn a good living and enjoy a satisfying career, possibly earning a move back to their home province somewhere down the line.

For older players frustrated with a lack of action at their provinces, a move abroad can breathe fresh life into their careers. The big tax break given to Irish players retiring at home probably prevents more of these moves happening. Many are often happy to spend the final years of their career as squad players in order to ensure they can reclaim that valuable 40%. That’s very understandable too.

It’s important that Irish-qualified players abroad are recognised, those who have moved away from home to better their careers saluted. The IRFU have recognised this potential new avenue for international players by appointing Mark Blair to keep an eye out for Irish-qualified talent in Britain. It is hoped that less players will slip under the radar.

For now, we look at four players whose moves away from Ireland have had obvious benefits to their careers. These are guys who have taken the plunge and looked outside of Ireland. While there are several examples of that risk being unsuccessful, here are some who have been rewarded.

Robin Copeland

The blindside flanker/second-row is a former Leinster U18, U19 and U20 cap. He also represented the Irish College and Club sides during his time with St. Mary’s RFC of Dublin. Despite his spectacular form at AIL level, Copeland was continually ignored by Leinster’s senior set-up, convincing him to accept an offer to join Plymouth Albion in the English Championship for the 2010/11 season. He had a big impact in Devon, scoring 5 tries in his twenty appearances.

That earned him a move to the Rotherham Titans, also in the Championship, at the start of this season and the dynamic Copeland has gone from strength to strength. The 24-year-old has contributed 11 tries already, mainly from the blindside. His brilliant form has now earned him a move to the Cardiff Blues for next season. Standing 6’5″ and weighing around 110kg, Copeland is extremely mobile for his size. If he can continue to improve at the Blues next season we may be hearing a lot more of his name in the next few years.

Sean Dougall

Dougall is a current teammate of Copeland’s at the Titans, but like his back-row companion, he is moving away from Rotherham next season with Munster signing the 22-year-old openside flanker. An Irish U18 and U19 international in the same age group as Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray, Dougall will be familiar with plenty of the Munster squad. Once with the Ulster Academy, Dougall moved to England in 2007 to join Leeds Carnegie in the Championship.

Two frustrating years of injury followed before a trial period with Rotherham gave him a fresh opportunity. Since officially joining the Titans in 2010, he has excelled at openside, even captaining the side on several occasions this season. At a time when there is regular media clamour for a ‘natural’ Irish openside to emerge, Dougall would appear to be of that breed. The back-row has signed a one-year deal with Munster so will have to set about proving himself quickly. He looks to have the hunger, fitness and intelligence to succeed.

Niall Morris

An U18, U19 and U20 Irish international, Morris was always marked out as a potential professional. Indeed, the talented fullback/winger signed for Leinster and made several promising Magners league appearances in the 2009/10 and 2010/11 seasons, even scoring a couple of tries. However, the depth of competition in the back-three at his home province meant Morris looked for a move elsewhere. The Leicester Tigers were more than happy to oblige and Morris joined them last summer.

The 23-year-old has made 10 starts, as well as 4 substitute appearances, so far this season, scoring 5 tries. It’s unlikely that Morris would’ve had similar opportunities at Leinster. He looks like a ready-made replacement for Tigers’ captain Geordan Murphy whenever he decides to call time on his career. Morris has a deceptively languid style on the pitch, reminiscent of Clement Poitrenaud at his best. This exciting player looks like a good bet to return to Ireland at some stage in his career, at both provincial and international level.

James Downey

The physical inside centre is at a far later stage of his career than the three other players featured here. He’s a fine example of a player who struggled for first-team rugby in Ireland, took a risk by moving abroad and earned a move back to these shores. Downey’s career began at his native Leinster in 2003, but a lack of action resulted in a move to Connacht for the start of the 2004/05 season. Two frustrating campaigns followed before a brief stint with Munster in 2006.

Italian side Calvisano offered Downey a first-choice role and Heineken Cup rugby for the 06/07 season. Northampton were impressed with what they saw and signed him up for 07/08. That move has been hugely successful for the Dubliner, as he has become a key player for the Saints. He has won the European Challenge Cup and the LV= Cup during his five seasons in England, as well as a Churchill Cup with Ireland ‘A’. Munster have now signed Downey for next season, a well-earned move for a player unwilling to waste away on provincial benches at the start of his career.

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