Whenever there’s an overseas signing in Welsh rugby, you tend to get a standard response from some people on the various social media channels.
You saw it again this week when Cardiff announced the recruitment of international forward Lopeti Timani, while similar happened following the Dragons’ recent unveiling of Kiwi center Sio Tomkinson.
The complaints, albeit from a minority of voices, are pretty familiar. They question what is this doing for Welsh rugby and argue that it blocks home-grown talent. You will also get those who claim the regions are packed with “journeymen foreigners”. So what is the truth of the matter and what do overseas players do for Welsh rugby?
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Well first the facts. There are actually not that many imports on the regional scene. Over the years, there have been strict limits on the numbers allowed and in recent times signings have had to be approved by the WRU. The end result is a pretty restricted group of non-Welsh qualified players.
Cardiff have just two of them in Moldovan prop Dimitri Arhip and Samoan center Rey Lee Lo, with Tongan-born former Wallaby Timani to come on board from Toulon this summer.
The Scarlets have five in Tongan Test forwards Sione Kalamafoni and Sam Lousi, Scottish internationals Blade Thomson and Javan Sebastian, plus Argentine flanker Tomas Lezana. Joining that group next season will be All Blacks second row Vaea Fifita, who has been signed from Wasps in a real coup.
At the Ospreys, you have six in Tongan prop Ma’afu Fia, Kiwi back row Ethan Roots, veteran Tongan hooker Elvis Taione, English back three talent Max Nagy and young Irish forwards Jack Regan and Will Hickey. Then over at the Dragons, you’ve Argentinian scrum-half Gonzalo Bertranou, Fijian tighthead prop Mesake Doge and Kiwi loosehead Ake Seiuli, while English winger Jordan Olowofela is on loan from Leicester for the season.
Along with Highlanders star Tomkinson, they are also bringing in Irish utility back JJ Hanrahan from Clermont Auvergne.
So those are the numbers? What about the pros and cons?
Well, there’s a strong argument that lock Lousi and back row Kalamafoni are the two best players in regional rugby right now, while Lee Lo has been a purveyor of consistent excellence during his seven years at the Arms Park. The likes of Arhip and Thomson have contributed significantly over the seasons, with tighthead Fia having been a real good servant of the Ospreys.
But it’s not just about the present day. If you look at the periods when our regions have been most successful, it has generally co-incided with them having quality overseas players on board. At Cardiff, their trophies have come with the likes of Xavier Rush, Ben Blair, Paul Tito and Nick Williams in the ranks, while Filo Tiatia, Marty Holah, Jerry Collins, Tommy Bowe and Justin Marshall were similarly crucial with the Ospreys’ silverware.
At the Scarlets, Kiwi center Regan King just oozed class as they vied for honours, with Celtic cousins Tadhg Berine and John Barclay key figures in the 2017 PRO12 title triumph. Then at Rodney Parade, there are fond memories of watching Gary Teichmann, Percy Montgomery and Rod Snow.
What players like this bring is real quality and they bring it all season long. That latter aspect is crucial with Wales stars away on international duty for so much of the time.
As for the contention that it blocks the progress of home-grown talent, you could probably point to one or two examples of that happening, but there’s the counter-argument that competition brings the best out in people and that it hugely benefits Welsh youngsters to train and play with such class performers.
Just ask Sam Warburton how much he learned from being in the company of Rush in his early days. Generally, the higher the standard of player around you, the better it is for your development, while the positives of being part of a successful environment speaks for itself.
It’s always better to play in a team that’s going forward rather than backwards and having the likes of Rush, Collins, Dan Baugh, Tiatia, Williams and now Kalamafoni, Timani, Tomkinson and Fifita around can only help on that front. The key really is if you are going to bring in imports, they ideally need to be top notch ones.
But what about the regions themselves? What’s their take on the topic?
Scarlets coach Dwayne Peel is well qualified to comment, in his current role and from his own experience as a player.
“Look, I was fortunate here. In my early years, we had Salesi Finau who was fantastic for us and Regan King became a fans’ favorite as well. The quality players like that bring to the team in terms of the rugby side of things is second to none, but there’s their leadership as well. Also, for the younger boys, when there’s someone who carries themselves well, who they can learn off, it’s huge.
“If you look at Sam and Sione here now, Sam has been excellent in his leadership. He has played a lot of minutes and he’s really been a focal point of driving the lineout. In turn, he is getting the best out of Jac Price and Morgan Jones when they play alongside him.
“Having that situation, where the likes of Sam and Sione bring the best out of our younger boys is so important because some of our international players are obviously away a lot of the time. So we need that leadership here and it’s huge.”
Peel added: “If you look at the Ospreys when they were in their pomp, you had an All Black back row in Tiatia, Collins and Holah and there’s no doubt they would have grown Ryan Jones and Jonathan Thomas’ game massively as well. What you need is the top end overseas player and then it’s fantastic for everyone.”
Dai Young is similarly well placed to give a view, having coached Cardiff in the era of Rush, Tito, Blair and Filise, while being back on board now to see the quality of a player like Lee Lo and the value of a signing such as the powerful Timani. So what do overseas recruits bring to the party in his view of him?
“It’s their experience of other environments, other competitions, playing under different coaches, knowing what works and what doesn’t,” said the former Wales and Lions prop.
“It’s about the standards they set and the behaviors they bring. It’s the quality they add on and off the field and you have them all season around.”
In that final sentence from Young, you really have it in a nutshell.