Inside rugby’s player tug-of-war: How Billy Burns is just the top of the iceberg for English talent drain

Sam Skinner (top left), Tom Heathcote (bottom left), Billy Burns (top centre), Will Addison (bottom centre), Ross Moriarty (top right) and Nick Tompkins (bottom right)

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When fly-half Billy Burns made his Ireland debut last Friday night, he became the 10th former England Under-20 international to represent another Six Nations country at senior level. Burns, whose grandfather is from Cork, is now in line to play the country of his birth on Saturday should he pass the concussion return-to-play protocols. 

Kieran Treadwell and Will Addison have also swapped white for green. Wales included Ross Moriarty, Nick Tompkins and Johnny Williams in their Autumn Nations Cup squad who all once wore a red rose on their chest, while Scotland have claimed Sam Skinner, Tom Heathcote and Greig Tonks. Even Italy have an ex England U20 captain in scrum-half Calum Braley as well as flanker David Sisi. 

Wales, Scotland and Ireland, through its IQ programme, all have staff based in England dedicated to finding qualified players. As Paul Turner, the former Wales fly-half-turned-talent-spotter, says, he frequently cross paths with his opposite numbers at schools tournaments and Premiership academy matches. “I see guys like Kevin Maggs (from Ireland) and Ian Smith (Scotland) about wherever I go,” Turner told The Daily Telegraph earlier this year. “I suppose it is like something out of a Mike Bassett film.”

The reason for their presence is obvious. According to World Rugby’s last census, England has a senior male playing base of 131,399 players. Wales and Ireland have around a fifth of that playing base, Scotland less than a 10th. That competition for resources is only like to intensify.

Ross Moriarty (right, playing for England U20) tackles Scotland's Adam Ashe

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In the same match that Burns made his debut, New Zealand wing James Lowe also started his first Test after qualifying on the three-year residency rule. From January 1, 2021, the residency rule will be extended to five years, which Joe Lydon, Irish rugby’s head of international talent ID and development, accepts will end the “project player” tactic of the past. “That five years is probably too much investment time for a union to get a player qualified,” Lydon told The Daily Telegraph. “It is not the norm now and I have to agree with it.”

Instead, it is Lydon’s job to identify and develop Irish-qualified players based abroad, primarily in England in the 17-20 age range, but also further afield. His database runs to hundreds of players but he and his team of Maggs, the former Ireland centre, and Steven McGuinness will concentrate on a pool of six to 10 players in each year group. Lydon says his most important weapon in identifying Irish-qualified players is “word of mouth”, whether through school or club coaches. Turner, meanwhile, relies upon what he terms “old-fashioned detective work”.

There are plenty of times when swords are crossed and targets slip through fingers, such as flanker Shannon Frizell who was on Turner’s radar for a long time before he made his New Zealand debut. 

“We trailed him for years,” Turner said. “I found out one day that he had a Welsh father, we trailed him for four years and it did not work because he became an All Black. It was not for the want of trying. It just so happened that someone picked up that knowledge, which happened to be me, and passed it on. That’s the way it works.”

Cynics would imagine that juicy inducements are offered to persuade young players to switch allegiances. The truth is rather more prosaic. Irish Rugby’s point of difference, Lydon says, is offering educational courses to supplement their rugby development. Current Connacht and Ireland centre Sam Arnold is an example of a player who was spotted playing at Cranleigh School in Kent and brought into the Irish system. And if a player is happy where they are – for example Leicester Tigers centre prospect Dan Kelly – they will not be pressured into leaving.

Joe Lydon (pictured), Irish rugby's head of international talent ID and development, is a former England coach

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“We are not press-ganging anyone to come over,” Lydon said. “The key ingredient is players who want to eventually pull on a green shirt. It is certainly not about the money. I would probably point out that if they are after making a lot of money then Ireland is probably not the place to come. The strapline is living the dream in green.”

There are few secrets in the world of talent identification. As soon as a player signs a professional contract, every union will know whether he is dual-qualified or, as in the case of Callum Sheedy who has pulled on a Welsh, Irish and English representative shirt, triple qualified. Only when an Irish-qualified player comes out of contract at a Premiership club will conversations be held with targets such as with Burns. 

“He was on the depth chart that we were looking at,” Lydon said. “His connection was already established, not least of all because of (former Ireland fly-half) David Humphreys when he was down at Gloucester. He was not a focussed target because he was in contract at Gloucester. It was a case of when the time was right for him, we had that conversation.”

So should the Rugby Football Union be concerned? John Fletcher, the former England U18 coach, is fairly relaxed by the drift of U20 players to other countries. “It is inevitable when you have 14 academies developing a lot of players that they will go somewhere else,” Fletcher said. “It is only a problem if it’s the British Lions-type players who go somewhere else, an Owen Farrell-type player.”

The only player who falls into that category, according to Fletcher, is Wales back row Moriarty. “He had a different mentality to a lot of the English guys,” Fletcher said. “I feel he would have done really well for England but the fact is his dad and his uncle played for Wales so it was an inevitable choice.”

Yet as Turner quickly points out, the talent drain goes both ways. “When you watch colleges like Hartpury in the AASE or BUCS, there will be eight or nine Welsh players,” Turner said. “Most of them would have come out of our system at maybe 16 years of age and taken the last couple of years at Hartpury. That has been going on for years, back to Gareth Davies and Gerald Davies. It used to be St Luke’s and Loughborough, now it is Exeter and Hartpury.”

So while England face Ireland and Wales in successive weeks on the pitch, the competition continues all year round.

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