Many argue that relaxing the eligibility rules would help level the Test playing field to the benefit of all – but is it that simple? A debate from our September 2021 issue

Face-off: Should it be made easier to switch national allegiance?

NO, says the rugby journalist at El Observador in Uruguay
There is a huge hypocrisy in the way Tier One countries lobby for the relaxation of eligibility rules in international rugby, recently backed by Tier Two countries like Samoa and Tonga.

Far from increasing the legitimacy of the claim, it only deepens the colonialist policy of Tier One towards the islands. The pandemic led to the postponement of the five-years eligibility law, so the theft of players will continue for a while.

Samoa and Tonga want a system that allows them to recover home-grown or heritage players who are already capped elsewhere. But it’s a self-deception. That rule change would only allow them to recover players already past their prime – like Charles Piutau or Malakai Fekitoa – while it could open them up to losing players in their best years. Would anyone hesitate to trade Tonga for the All Blacks?

This wouldn’t help them to top Australia or England. It would only widen the gap ahead of Romania or the US.

Face-off: Should it be made easier to change national allegiance?

A rule change would be of no benefit to Uruguay, argues Ignacio Chans (World Rugby/Getty Images)

Some also propose a system where the relaxation could happen in one – their – direction. In addition to being a legal aberration and another example of colonialism, it would be unfair to other Tier Two countries, especially those basing their system on home-grown players, such as Georgia or Uruguay.

It’s not an argument against migration that enriches societies and teams but one in favour of clear rules. Invest more in development of high-performance programmes on the islands to empower them. Other solutions only make rugby more unfair.

YES, says the former Samoa dual international
If you look at rugby league, they allow the jumping from one country to another because it’s all about the development of the game. It heightens the level of the game.

But if you say, “Well, he has one cap for the All Blacks, he hasn’t played for a while but he can’t play for Tonga,” that is so harsh and I would also see that as a restriction of trade.

At the end of the day, we are an entertainment business. People pay to see us on TV, they pay to see us at the stadium. You should be rewarded for that as a player, not be restricted.

The eligibility laws as they are mean opportunities are lost to spread rugby. How much more sponsorship would Tonga get if they had the ex-All Blacks or Australia players, or even former England players of Tongan heritage?

Billy Vunipola

Billy Vunipola grew up in the Tongan village of Longo Longo. He’d be a sensation for Tonga, says Perelini (Sportsfile/Getty)

If no longer required by the Top Tier nations, imagine a player like Billy Vunipola playing for Tonga. It could grow rugby across the Pacific Islands to see that quality of player play; the level goes up and the sponsors would hop on.

It shouldn’t just be the Top Tier guys making all the decisions. The white-collar guys make the decisions and the blue-collar guys just take it. I’m a big believer in the eligibility laws changing.

If an All Black moves to the UK and is then surplus to New Zealand requirements, let them stand down for a season and then let them become eligible either for their country of birth or of heritage – if they have the passport or residency status. That’s the way it works in rugby league.

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This debate first appeared in the September 2021 issue of Rugby World.