By Alex Lowe
WHEN ENGLAND walk out to play South Africa at Twickenham on November 24, each player will be accompanied by a mascot from his formative club.
It is a thoughful touch, the latest idea from Stuart Lancaster to remind his squad who they represent each time they pull on an England jersey. It is part of a noble and effective plan to reconnect the national team with their public.
Unfortunately, my first question to the Rugby Football Union was: “So, are you paying for Thomas Waldrom to fly a kid over from Lower Hutt, New Zealand?”
Maybe I am just too cynical but the idea simply highlighted to me the number of players who had to nominate a junior English club because they do not have one.
Waldrom, Mouritz Botha, Brad Barritt and David Paice are clear-cut examples of players who played their formative rugby abroad before qualifying for England…or discovering a grandmother.
None of this is black and white. Dylan Hartley, Manu Tuilagi, Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola were all born overseas but all have played junior rugby in England. This is the modern rugby world.
England are selecting players who are available to them under the regulations. In fact they always have done: from the Russian Prince Obolensky to the dual international Jamie Salmon; from the Tongan volcano Lesley Vainikolo to the Afrikaner Hendre Fourie.
What really concerns me are the countries who are actively exploiting the rules; the likes of Scotland who have an open policy to recruit “project signings” with the aim of qualifying them on residency grounds. Edinburgh’s South African prop WP Nel was the first.
“For Scotland to compete in years to come, we have to do this,” said Edinburgh chairman Jim Calder.
This is an unacceptable situation which damages the integrity of Test rugby but the International Rugby Board seemed to be entirely unconcerned about it when I asked them.
No one will convince me it is good for Test rugby to see two South African cousins – Richardt and Adriaan Strauss – playing against each other in Ireland’s Test against the Springboks.
The England and Wales Cricket Board recently increased their residency qualification period to seven years. The IRB should follow suit with something similar.
Unfortunately, they will not because it would require the support of those countries who are benefitting from the current situation. These unions should be focusing on developing the next generation, not hiring them as international mercenaries and opportunists.
My proposal? A player is captured for one country when he or she has played at Under-20 level; residency qualification should be increased to at least five years, or maybe even seven; players should be able to qualify for a country through their parents only.
Another of Stuart Lancaster’s motivational techniques has been to invite guest speakers to address the England squad with messages of inspiration and tales of their own heroic sporting deeds.
During the Six Nations, it was Gary Neville and Kevin Sinfield. Before the autumn Internationals it was Bradley Wiggins, the Tour de France winner and Olympic road race champion.
Wiggins connected immediately with the England squad. They liked the fact he enjoyed a few pints when he was not in training and hung on his every word.
“He is a very inspiring individual,” said Tom Johnson. “I took away from it how dedicated he was and exactly what it will take for us to get to the next level. He is a very down to earth man.”
But we all know how merciless a rugby crowd can be.
“Unfortunately, the talk got cut short because he had a helicopter waiting,” Johnson revealed. “He was very embarrassed about that and the boys gave him a lot of gip!”
Very down to earth, Wiggo, and by the way, get well soon!
Follow Alex Lowe on Twitter @AlexMLowe