Rugby’s eligibility regulations have become a farce, with players able to chop and change their allegiance with ease. Rugby World looks at how to solve the problems
World Rugby’s Regulation Eight has long been a bugbear of mine. The regulation concerns players’ eligibility to play for national representative teams. It states that a player may only play for a country’s senior XV (or their designated second team or sevens side) if they were born in the country, one of their parents or grandparents was born in the country, or they have lived in the country for 36 consecutive months. In my view it is too easy for players to switch from one country to another, often when they have little or no links to their new nation. As the expression goes, too often they look to be ‘flags of convenience’.
This is not a new phenomenon. There were plenty of overseas arrivals at the start of the pro era with Scotland’s Kilted Kiwis and Wales’ imports (although ‘Grannygate’ proved their eligibility hadn’t been thoroughly checked), but there now seems to be more movement than ever. I appreciate that the world is now a transient place, with people far more likely to move for work or lifestyle than a century ago. However, I still think a player should have a true allegiance to a country if they are going to represent it on the international sporting stage.
Of course, it’s hard to pin all the blame on the players – and the coaches who pick them – when they are simply taking advantage of the rules laid out by rugby’s governing body. It should also be said that rugby’s rules are better than those of cricket or football in the fact that you can no longer represent two countries at senior level. Here I look at the main issues Regulation Eight raises and make suggestions for how the eligibility rules should change…
Problem: Confusion over ‘second’ teams
Players can’t represent a national team if they have already represented another national team at senior level. However, different countries have different rules on what constitutes a senior level. Sevens counts, providing they play against another national sevens team – on the HSBC Sevens World Series for example. The senior 15-a-side national representative team is self-explanatory: play in a Test match and you are tied to that country (or, as World Rugby describe it, the player has been ‘captured’ by the union).
Finally, if a player plays for a country’s ‘next senior 15-a-side national representative team’ they are committed to that nation. But this is where things get tricky. The Saxons are England’s second team and the Wolfhounds Ireland’s, but Wales and France have designated their U20 teams as the next 15-a-side representative team.
Remember the case of Steve Shingler a few years back? He’d represented Wales U20, been signed by London Irish as an England-qualified player (his father was born in England), then Scotland picked him in their Six Nations squad (his mother is Scottish). Wales disputed the call-up and it was determined that because Shingler had played for Wales U20 against France U20 (at that stage a player was only ‘captured’ if they had played against another designated second team) he was indeed tied to Wales. But when the player himself isn’t even aware of the fact it shows that the rules aren’t clear.
The different ‘second’ teams also mean players can play a lot of representative rugby but not be committed to a union. Brad Barritt represented South Africa U21 and the Emerging Springboks before joining Saracens and subsequently pulling on an England shirt. Riki Flutey and Sean Maitland turned out for New Zealand Maori prior to representing England and Scotland respectively. Gareth Anscombe played for New Zealand U20 but won his first Wales cap against Ireland this month.
Solution: Playing for a national representative team at U20 level or above ties you to that country
Firstly, this eradicates any confusion about when an appearance makes you ineligible for another country. The vast majority of U20 players are adults (World Rugby’s regulations say a player has to have ‘reached the age of majority’ (18) for them to be captured anyway) so they are old enough to decide whether they want to forever be tied to one country. If they want to keep their options open, they can turn down the U20 opportunity. Plenty of players make it to Test level despite playing no age-grade representative rugby, just as plenty of players don’t progress after winning such honours.
Secondly, players who have played a high level of representative rugby – say Emerging Springboks, Maori All Blacks or Emerging Ireland – can’t change unions if they don’t make the next step to Test rugby for their original country. That sort of switch inevitably leads to questions over commitment and allegiance.
Thirdly, it prevents players from being ‘poached’ by other unions. Three players – Luteru Laulala, Nathaniel Apa and Henry Stowers – who represented Samoa at last year’s U20 World Cup were in New Zealand’s squad at this year’s championship. The Kiwis may have lifted the trophy but Samoa finished last and have been relegated to the U20 Trophy competition.
Problem: Project players
This whole concept riles me. It means scouring the globe for decent players and bringing them to another country with a view to them qualifying to represent that country on the three-year residency rule. And as rugby prepares to enter its second decade as a professional sport, the practice is becoming more commonplace.
Scotland named two South Africans – Josh Strauss and WP Nel – in their World Cup training squad who don’t yet qualify but will do by the time they take on Japan on 23 September. There’s no doubting that they are quality players – Nel has been a rock in the scrum for Edinburgh and Strauss has excelled in the back row of a Glasgow side he has also captained. But does three years spent in Scotland mean they deserve to don the thistle ahead of players born and bred in the Scottish system?
Should countries not focus on developing and generating home-grown talent rather than bringing in foreign players in what is more of a quick-fix (relatively!) solution? Bringing in overseas players actually stunts progress because game time for young, local players is restricted by the new arrivals and they can’t gain experience to develop their own game.
And why does the fact a player is from the southern hemisphere automatically make them better than the local lad? It’s almost as if those in the North have an inferiority complex. Surely if a player is that good he would have been selected by his own SANZAR union.
Scotland are far from the only side to look to project players. In fact, it was an idea Graham Henry tried out when he was Wales coach more than 15 years ago. Ireland have brought in overseas front-row players with a view to them qualifying on residency as they tried to address what they felt was a shortage of quality props.
I’m not against players qualifying for a different nation via residency, but I think it should be more of an organic process rather than an exploitative one, although that obviously can’t be regulated. Chris Horsman was born in England but opted to play for Wales, where he had lived for three years, because he felt his rugby career had been rejuvenated on the western side of the Severn Bridge. The same could be said for Ben Morgan, who came to the attention of England and Wales selectors when he hit a rich vein of form for the Scarlets, but the pull of wearing the rose was too great for the No 8.
Refreshingly, Horsman now works as a skills coach for the WRU. Many of those who qualify on residency grounds, and even those who are eligible through their relatives, head home once the international honours – not to mention the financial rewards – have dried up.
Solution: Increase the residency requirement to 60 consecutive months
A commitment of at least five years to become eligible for another country means the players themselves have to really buy into the switch. They would be sacrificing the opportunity to play in at least one RWC for their home country and over the five-year period would develop a greater understanding of their future country, assimilating into local culture and so on.
On top of the increased level of commitment from the players, a five-year term could also deter unions from scouring the globe for possible ‘projects’ because the financial outlay would be that much higher. Not only could they save the money spent on the wages of those players brought in but they also wouldn’t need to pay scouts to source such players. Pump those savings into grass-roots rugby and academies, develop home-grown talent and unions won’t need project players.
Problem: Lack of national identity
I’ve no doubt players are proud to play Test rugby and are determined to produce their best, but how much does which shirt they’re wearing matter? I believe they should have an affiliation with who and what they are representing, to understand the history, culture and values of that nation, to have pride in not only playing at the top level but representing the people of that country.
Supporters should also be able to relate to those playing for their country, the people representing them on the international stage. International players should inspire the next generation. Robbie Henshaw is a Connacht lad, he came up through the age grades to play for his local province and has gone on to represent Ireland. His progress demonstrates to the mini players in the Connacht area that there is a pathway to reach the sport’s highest levels, his success encourages more local youngsters to take up the game. Can the same be said of a player flown in from overseas?
There has been much unrest in France over the number of overseas-born players being picked by Philippe Saint-André recently, with the likes of Scott Spedding, Rory Kockott, Bernard le Roux, Uini Atonio and Noa Nakaitaci turning out for les Bleus. It’s fair to say not all fans have warmed to the controversial policy.
Most of those who come over with a view to qualifying via parents or grandparents at least speak of growing up learning of their heritage. Maitland has recalled how his grandfather, whisky in hand, told stories of growing up in Scotland while Anscombe has spoken of how his Welsh mother named him after Gareth Edwards.
It’s not always the case, though. Thomas Waldrom originally moved to England from New Zealand, joining Leicester, with the aim of qualifying to wear the red rose on residency grounds, but during his first season he discovered that he had an English grandmother, which speeded up the process. He told the Leicester Mercury: “I remembered reading that my grandmother was English. I rang up my mum in New Zealand and asked if Nana was born in England. She said yes, and that she also had the birth certificate to prove it.”
So Waldrom satisfied the criteria for Regulation Eight – but given that he wasn’t even sure his grandmother was born in England you can hardly say that he felt a loyalty to the country. Compare that to another No 8: Lawrence Dallaglio turned down the chance to play for Italy, land of his father, early in his career because he felt so passionately about being English.
When the Scotland squad was announced for this year’s Six Nations one name jumped out: Hugh Blake. Who? Few had even heard of him. The former New Zealand U20 back-row had arrived in Edinburgh a few weeks previously, had yet to play a game for his new club but was already rated highly enough to be selected in the national squad by dint of the fact he had Scottish grandparents. He started only one game for Edinburgh last season, but will make his Scotland debut against Ireland this weekend after Vern Cotter included him in his RWC 2015 training squad ahead of the likes of Kelly Brown and Chris Fusaro.
Solution: One parent must have been born in the country for a player to be eligible
This doesn’t elimate the problem. Players could still arrive in a country with little or no knowledge of it but qualify for the national team because their mum or dad happened to be born there – but it should mean closer ties than a grandparent they may never have met.
One caveat I would propose is that the grandparent rule could still apply for lower-tier nations. Take Fiji, Samoa and Tonga: huge numbers have moved from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand and Australia for better job prospects and given that they already struggle to retain talent, it seems harsh to hinder them further. For rugby to become more competitive at Test level, those lower-tier nations need to improve and the odd native grandparent could help them do that. I’d propose this rule applies for five years and is then reassessed in case it was giving those countries an unfair advantage.
On the subject of lower-tier nations, World Rugby should put some of the money generated by the World Cup into a pot for them to compensate their players. Too often there are stories of players either having to put their hands in their own pockets to fund flights and so on or, worse, being asked to retire from Test duty to get more lucrative club contracts. It’s little wonder the financial benefits of playing for a top-tier country are often more attractive, but if World Rugby provided greater financial support to the likes of the Pacific Islands it would at least give those who qualified for two countries reason to pause for thought.
As Fiji coach John McKee says: “Players don’t play for Fiji for money – they do it for the pride of representing their country.” If only the same was true across the board. These solutions are not perfect but it would be a start to ensuring the integrity of Test rugby is safeguarded.