The quality of Munster's squad has been intensely scrutinised this week after the shambolic one-off showing against Saracens; and Anthony Foley has come out to show his hand and say that Munster are not worried about money when looking for high quality imports.
But are the imports that the provinces have been recruiting as good as they have been? The likes of Dan Carter, Bryan Habana, and Matt Giteau have brought their talents to the northern hemisphere recently, and a gap is forming between the Pro 12 and the rest of Europe.
The provinces have always supplemented their squads with a small number of Irish rugby imports some successfully - Doug Howlett, and some not - Eddie Hekenui. Given the poor performances of the provinces in Europe this season, there are calls for the IRFU to relax the NIQ rule. Despite this; they are set to decrease the allowance from 5 players to 4 from next season. This means that the quality of import that the provinces bring in must be top notch, so that they can compete on a European level.
Are the quality of the imports good enough now? Are they as good as they used to be? If a team made up of imports from the past faced off against imports from now, which team would match up better?
Note: I tried as much as possible to not include any players who ended up playing for Ireland, or who can play for Ireland. Unfortunately that meant moving players to secondary positions, and including the likes of Gerhard van den Heever, Tom McCartney, Jake Heenan and CJ Stander was a last resort as there was no non-project player available.
Irish Rugby Imports XV
Going through the teams, it's clear that the likes of Trevor Halsted, Lifemi Mafi and Rua Tipoki are better players and have had a bigger and better impact than the likes of Andrew Smith, Ben Te'o and Bundee Aki. It may be harsh to include Te'o and Aki already given their limited exposure, but both will have to do extremely well to beat the Munster trio, especially when players like Jean de Villiers didn't have as much of an impact in Munster.
Even in the back three, there are huge similarities between Christian Cullen and Mils Muliaina. Both are decorated All Blacks that have had their best years elsewhere. Unfortunately for Munster - Cullen was beset with injuries during his time, while Muliaina looks like he's having a huge impact on Connacht both on and off the pitch. Cullen was a massive signing for Munster at the time, and while he had some great moments, his legacy was made in New Zealand. He'll be remembered as the first major import into Irish rugby. Isa Nacewa and Doug Howlett were two of the biggest impact imports that Ireland have seen, and while Gerhard van den Heever and Zane Kirchner have been good, they aren't in Nacewa and Howlett's league.
Throughout the rest of the team the likes of John Afoa, Johann Muller, Brad Thorn, Rocky Elsom, and Jim Williams highlight some of the quality that have graced these shores. No disrespect to Kane Douglas, BJ Botha or Nick Williams, but they aren't at the top of their game or had as much of an impact as Thorn or Williams or Muller.
Glancing at these teams, it's clear that aside from Ruan Pienaar, the quality of the imports in Irish rugby has decreased. There's a bigger focus on recruiting project players that can eventually play for the Irish national team. This may be positive for the national side, but the changing climate of European rugby dictates that quality NIQs need to be brought in to supplement the existing talent in the provinces.
Munster have been crying out for some centres since Casey Laulala, Lifemi Mafi, and Rua Tipoki left, Ulster haven't replaced Johann Muller, and Leinster haven't had the poise of Nacewa since he retired.
Having less NIQs in Ireland isn't a bad thing, but the standard of those players needs to be as high as it used to be.
Picture credits: SPORTSFILE