By Darragh Nolan
Focus on head coach Joe Schmidt’s selections for the Irish squad at the Rugby World Cup has centred around one decision in the second-row.
Devin Toner’s omission would’ve drawn plenty of scrutiny regardless of who got on the plane to Japan ahead of him. That South African-born Jean Kleyn replaces the 6’11” Leinster forward only adds to the intrigue.
Kleyn’s ability is not up for debate here. He’s a fine rugby player. Indeed, he’s capable of playing international test rugby. I have no doubt that he’ll relish the chance to shine on the biggest stage.
Rather the merits of the residency rule allowing Kleyn to play for Ireland at all add to the questionability of the decision. His inclusion over a figure as experienced as Toner raises concerns over the fairness of the rule.
The idea of fairness may not be conducive to any sport, especially one as physically unforgiving as rugby. Sport is the ultimate meritocracy, a dog-eat-dog environment founded upon beating out the competition.
Kleyn is admittedly the better option from a pure rugby point of view. He’s preferable on the tighthead side, where Toner is more comfortable operating behind the loosehead prop.
At 26, Kleyn ought to be more reliable in terms of fitness. The 33-year-old Leinsterman has been relatively free of injury over his career, but Irish fans know all too well how the injury bug can strike, after the disaster suffered in 2015.
The decision to bring Kleyn to the World Cup is justified by his own ability, by certain attributes he possesses over Toner. Much of what makes this decision stand out is unfortunate timing.
Devin Toner was already reaching the point where his days in an Ireland shirt were numbered. James Ryan and Iain Henderson have been developing a partnership as the first-choice second row. Kleyn has only gained eligibility recently and made his Ireland debut on August 10. It’s hard to go wrong with any of the aforementioned at lock.
What may render the choice of South African Kleyn over Irish Toner a mistake, though, has nothing to do with the former’s eligibility. This was more of a choice based on youth over experience, as opposed to one nation over another.
For context, Kleyn has played 63 times for Munster since joining in 2016. Devin Toner has 67 caps for Ireland alone. Kleyn has made 108 professional appearances, whereas Toner has 299, including 232 for Leinster on the way to winning four European Cups and five Pro14s. There’s a huge gulf in experience between the two men.
Toner has three Six Nations, including a Grand Slam, to his name. Kleyn has never faced the pressure, the immensely difficult task of test rugby against the world’s elite. There’s no telling how his talent will carry over into those big moments.
The residency rule isn’t perfect. Should it be tossed out entirely? Absolutely not. Bundee Aki and C.J. Stander are world class additions for Ireland, who have become fan favourites. Jean Kleyn could to follow in their footsteps.
The rule could be improved somewhat. Perhaps players with very little experience for Ireland, like Kleyn, should need to compile a certain number of caps in Summer and Autumn tests before being allowed to play in the Six Nations, or travel to World Cups.
Should foreign-born players be allowed to play for Ireland? Yes. Should a newly eligible player get on a World Cup squad ahead of one with 67 caps? That is the real issue.