‘If you want something done, do it yourself’ is the age old adage and the attitude that has largely been adopted by new Fédération Française de Rugby President Bernard Laporte.
The former Toulon Director of Rugby was elected as the FFR’s latest president after taking over from Pierre Camou earlier this month.
One of Laporte’s main promises in his run for presidency was a vow to cull the number of foreign internationals in French Rugby, not only in its two professional leagues in the Top 14 and the Pro D2, but also within the French national team.
After assuming the presidency on the 3rd of December, it took Laporte less than three weeks to follow up on his election promise with the 52-year-old officially announcing on Wednesday that France will stop selecting non-French players who have qualified under the three-year residency rule.
After a meeting with World Rugby president Bill Beaumont, Laporte went public with the news.
“I told Bill that we’ve taken the political decision to stop playing foreign players in the national team,” Laporte said (via the BBC).
“Obviously, it’s not retroactive. Those playing can continue playing but it’s a strong signal for French academies and our youngsters that we’ll play a maximum number of Frenchmen.”
Nothing stokes the fires of passionate French citizens like a vow to play more French-born players, but idealistically, Laporte’s move to self-impose the restriction of foreign born players in French Rugby raises two significant questions – why and will it work?
The ‘why’ is a multi-faceted question that focuses on both the performances of French Rugby and the inaction of World Rugby to act on the increasing prominence of foreign born internationals playing for Tier 1 nations.
Firstly, France have not finished inside the top half of the Six Nations since 2011, including an embarrassing 2013 season where they finished sixth, and a tumultuous 2016 campaign where they finished fifth.
French Rugby nosedived under former coach Philippe Saint-Andre but under Guy Novès it seems to have found somewhat of a resurgence in the last quarter of 2016, with a strong November series that included a landslide win over Samoa, as well as narrow defeats to Australia and New Zealand.
Foreign born internationals Uini Atonio (Samoa U20), Virimi Vakatawa (Fiji) and Noa Nakaitaci (Fiji U20) all featured prominently in the five point loss to New Zealand last month, which makes Laporte’s comments all the more intriguing.
“One must not impoverish the Fijians, Georgians, Samoans and Tongans otherwise we impoverish the standard of international rugby,” Laporte added in his statement.
Which leads me to World Rugby, who have been aware of this issue for several years now.
World Rugby vice-president Agustin Pichot is an outspoken critic of the residency rule and would like to see the current three-year residency rule extended to a minimum of five years.
However, World Rugby President Bill Beaumont has taken a more diplomatic stance on the issue and is in no apparent rush to see a change in the current rules regarding eligibility.
“We are constantly reviewing all our laws and this is one we are looking at,” Beaumont told reporters at the World Rugby Conference in London last month. “My colleague [Pichot] does have a passion about it.
“It’s something we need to keep looking at as there are different eligibility rules for the Olympics and other sports.
“We consult the unions, we make the recommendations but they decide. We’ll put a group together within World Rugby, elected members and external too as we don’t want to be too insular.
“It will be discussed during executive meeting on Wednesday and might go to Council after that discussion.
“All 126 unions will be consulted but if there is going to be any change it would be in 12 months or so.”
Consulting all 126 unions is a naturally diplomatic answer from Beaumont but is foreign born representation really as much of a problem in Kenya or Portugal as it is in Ireland or France?
Of course not, but then again, who says it’s even a problem in the first place?
Former Ireland and Leinster winger Luke Fitzgerald for one. The recently retired Ireland back questioned the IRFU’s ‘special project player’ policy questioning why more Irish players weren’t given a shot instead of the foreign born internationals that are becoming increasingly prominent within the Irish side.
“I think it’s wrong… I deliberately have given a short answer, I think it’s wrong,” said Fitzgerald (via The Irish Examiner).
“I know that’s controversial [his opinion], but… and it’s no reflection on those [foreign-born] guys, they’re doing everything within the rules, I’d like to see Irish guys in there. Are we not good enough to fill the spots? I don’t know if there’s a big enough gap between Irish guys and those guys to really justify it?”
A fair point by Fitzgerald. Irish teams have consistently challenged in both European Club Rugby and on the international stage, so why should they have their spots in the Irish national team taken away by a ‘project player’, or more blankly, a foreign born player who has signed a three-year contract with the option to declare for the national team at the end of his contract, at which point, the IRFU have the option to re-sign him to a bigger contract or discard him.
However, for as much sense as Fitzgerald talks, his views are not shared by IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora who has taken a more lawful approach to the matter.
“They’re the rules, so that’s what is set out for us,” said Nucifora in October (via the42). “So like every other country, we all operate from the same set of rules. Whilst they’re there, we’re happy to abide by them, again, like every other country does.”
Or in other words, everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we? The ‘look at everyone else’ approach wouldn’t hold up in a primary school principal’s office, much less at the elite level of international sport.
But Nucifora’s approach is also shared by his counterparts at the RFU and SRU, who have also fully availed of World Rugby’s lax residency rules to integrate foreign born players into their respective international teams.
But why would World Rugby seek to change the rules? One of the sport’s biggest issues is competitiveness among Tier 1 nations, with World Rugby desperately keen to try and permanently close the gap between the southern and northern hemisphere sides.
As cynical as it may be, what’s a more cost effective solution for World Rugby in making international rugby a more competitive game – pumping millions into trying to grow the game in Tier 2 nations and Tier 1 nations like Italy, or allow individual unions to manage their own costs and if they recruit foreign born players let them handle it internally? Answer: the latter, in a landslide.
World Rugby are certainly trying to promote the game internationally, but in the meantime, they are also faced with the issue of a rampaging New Zealand side who broke the world record for most consecutive Test wins earlier this year with 18 straight victories.
The side to derail their historic run? Ireland. Their foreign born representation? Two players – CJ Stander and Jared Payne.
The only other team to push the All Blacks close was France, when New Zealand clinched a 24-19 victory at the Stade de France in Paris. France’s foreign born representation? Three players – Virimi Vakatawa, Noa Nakaitaci and Uini Atonio.
I’m not suggesting the competitiveness of those games were due to five foreign born players out of 46 players across two squads.
However, when looking at England’s 58-15 demolition of Fiji last month the impact of foreign born players is noticeably greater.
England fielded three foreign born players that day in Teimana Harrison, Nathan Hughes and Semesa Rokoduguni. The trio accounted for four tries between them with Rokoduguni and Hughes both native Fijians, who John McKee could have desperately used against a vastly superior English side.
But again, what’s the point? If Hughes, Harrison and Rokoduguni play for Fiji instead of England, is the result much different?
However, if the trio are selected to play the All Blacks, be it as starters or off the bench, does that change the situation?
Depends on the form they’re in and the contribution they’re able to make on the field, but naturally, they have a much greater opportunity of having an impact for England than they would have for Fiji, who are generally blown out by Tier 1 opposition.
It will be interesting to see if Laporte’s self-imposed restrictions will be for the betterment of French Rugby, but with Nucifora fimrly standing by World Rugby’s current rules in Ireland, and with Harrison and Hughes both making their England debuts this year, as well as Cornell Du Preez becoming the latest South African to be called up to the Scotland squad last month, it seems as if Laporte is a singular revolutionary in a country that has never really had a problem in turning against the establishment.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
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