Project players are flooding the European game and it is time for World Rugby to kick them into touch, or at the very least tighten up qualification rules
Another day, another project player and another kick in the teeth for anyone who thinks you should play for the country of your birth or at least the place where your parents comes from. This has got to stop.
The latest one to sneak under the radar is Rhys Marshall, a hooker who signed for Munster this week. Marshall was born in New Plymouth, in New Zealand, played for the Junior All Blacks at the Under-20 World Cup in 2012 and then played for Taranaki and the Chiefs. The last time I looked that makes him a Kiwi. Now he has signed for Munster and in three years’ time will be eligible to play for Ireland.
World Rugby met in Buenos Aires recently when they agreed to look into eligibility rules but they had better get their skates on or else another raft of players will have slipped through the net.
Gus Pichot, vice-chairman of World Rugby, and Ian Ritchie and Nigel Melville, of the RFU, all want the current three-year period increased and you can see why.
Richardt Strauss, at Leinster, has won 17 caps at hooker for Ireland since 2012 after he had completed a three-year residency period. Born in South Africa, Strauss played for the Boks Under-19s and the Cheetahs. That makes him South African in my book. Chuck in Tom McCartney, another hooker, at Connacht who was born in Auckland and qualifies for Ireland in a year and you wonder why any young Irish front-rowers bother playing the game.
Rúaidhrí O’Connor, our colleague from the Irish Independent, came up with some startling statistics recently. He worked out that under Joe Schmidt, who has been in charge of Ireland since 2013, almost a quarter of the players the coach has handed first caps to have qualified on residency and another 12 per cent have got the green shirt on parentage. Schmidt has given 25 blokes their first taste of senior international rugby and a large dollop of them are about as Irish as spaghetti and pizza.
There will be more to come too. Bundee Aki is amongst another tranche of players who qualify next year for Ireland and you can bet your bottom dollar he will capped ASAP.
No-one is breaking it rules but the rules need to be changed. At best the current exploitation of them is sharp practice, at worse it is cynical and bad for the game.
But is not just Ireland who are at it on the ‘project player’ front. Scotland have even recruited for a post called the International Resettlement Adviser for the Scottish Rugby Union. The job description said the position’s responsibilities were ‘to advise and assist Scottish Rugby with the identification, recruitment, relocation, resettlement and integration of professional rugby players, coaches and other employees from overseas, particularly those from the southern hemisphere.”
In other words, they want to scour the globe for player who cannot get a gig with South Africa, New Zealand or the Wallabies, sign them on a domestic contract and, bingo, three years later they have a ready-made international. How about looking around Scotland, or any other country, to see if there are any players who could make the step up and how do the leading Scottish or Irish teenagers feel about all this?
Josh Strauss and WP Nel are Scottish project players, with Strauss only qualifying to play for Vern Cotter’s team days before the last World Cup and Tim Visser is also there on residency.
Everyone is guilty. Nathan Hughes could have played for Fiji in World Cup but sat it out to qualify for England and as soon as he was eligible he was in Eddie Jones’ Elite Player Squad. Scott Spedding was a South African Under-21 player and now plays for…France and there are piles more where they came from.
At the start of the last Six Nations a quick count-up of the squads showed there were players born in 21 different countries involved. Some of these may have been the result of parents working abroad but it is a massive number for a tournament that is made of, err…, Six Nations.
There were 23 players who qualified on residency ranging from the Vunipola brothers who came to the UK as children to some, such as South African-born Braam Steyn, who had only arrived, in rugby terms, about five minutes earlier.
In 2012, the England and Wales Cricket Board increased the qualification period to seven years if you had arrived on these shores after your 18th birthday – that was vaguely sensible. England had long been derided for being full of South African imports and the county game was being wrecked by Kolpak players – but that is another story. Football has a five-year qualification period to play for national teams.
It has got to stop in rugby, the powers-that-be are talking about making the new residency period five years but it should be more to stop this cynical recruitment policy, that is holding back home-grown youngsters, although I wouldn’t hold your breath.