Playing for your country – the highest possible honour that could ever be bestowed upon any athlete; or at least that’s what we thought.
The advent of professionalism in rugby has changed the landscape of the sport. With rugby becoming increasingly globalised and an increase in the ease of access and flexible representation rules, we are seeing more naturalised internationals than we ever have before.
The latest high profile player to be linked with an international debut for a foreign country is Castres winger David Smith, who was drafted into Guy Noves’ French squad as injury cover for Marvin O’Connor and Teddy Thomas. The Samoan-born winger was forced to withdraw just a number of hours after being called into the French squad as the French Rugby Federation received news that the 29-year-old was ineligible to represent France.
Smith was the latest Top 14 player to be linked with representing Les Blues after South African’s Scott Spedding, Rory Kockott and Bernard Le Roux all made their French debuts in recent seasons, with Fijian-born Virimi Vakatawa the latest foreign-born player to make his full French debut against Italy in round 1.
With stricter foreign-based player rules now instilled in the Top 14, it was thought that French rugby was looking to promote more homegrown players into the French side after the country’s embarrassing 62-13 defeat at the hands of the All Blacks at last year’s World Cup.
The development of French-born players and their progression into the French national team may be the long-term goal for French rugby, but in interim, it appears that the FFR are happy to continue to bleed foreign-born players into the national side as a temporary solution. After all that’s what’s most important right? Winning international matches?
While reliable and tested, I’m going to say that 29-year-old David Smith and his ancestors weren’t exactly raised on the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
But it’s not only France that are guilty of giving foreign-born players international jerseys. New Zealand have been doing it for decades. A 2014 study by the New Zealand Herald showed that the All Blacks have featured 83 players born on foreign lands.
There have been 1146 All blacks to date so roughly on average one in every 14 All Blacks has been born outside of New Zealand. Just by statistics alone, you can allege that every All Black team in history has not been made up solely of New Zealanders. In reality it doesn’t always work out that way but statistically we can make those inferences.
Granted, the number can be a little skewed as there have been All Blacks such as Mils Muliaina who was born in Samoa before returning to New Zealand aged two, but there have also been players like Malakai Fekitoa who was born in Tonga and didn’t move to New Zealand until 2009 when he was given a scholarship by Wesley College. New Zealand have been accused of pillaging Pacific Islands players for years now, but the number of players they have supposedly stolen is not exactly as high as most people think.
Instead, most of the pillaging is now being administered by the Six Nations countries, with an increasing amount of naturalised players now competing annually in rugby’s oldest competition.
The 2015 Rugby World Cup served to highlight the gap between the southern and northern hemisphere sides on the field, with many southern hemisphere fans referring to the Six Nations as second-rate competition given the fact that no northern hemisphere side had reached the semi-finals.
This perception has not been weakened by the debuts of Ireland’s South Africa-born number 8 CJ Stander and France’s Vakatawa in this year’s tournament. The fact is, every side in world rugby is doing this. You have Jared Payne, Kieran Marmion, Richardt Strauss, Rob Herring, Stander and Nathan White for Ireland, New Zealand born and raised Gareth Anscombe for Wales, the Toolis brothers, WP Nel, Blair Cowan and Sean Maitland for Scotland, Luke McClean and Kelly Haimona for Italy and England’s newest captain, Dylan Hartley, is a Kiwi. Not to mention the Shontayne Hapes and Brad Barritts of years gone by.
But is it a problem? Do we really care who pulls on our national jersey as long as the team wins and the foreign-born players help the country win games? The answer lies in some sort of compromise and a difference in opinion.
The Irish football team of the 1990s was filled with players from England, with Tony Cascarino, Mick McCarthy and John Aldridge all pivotal in Ireland’s 1990 World Cup campaign in Italy. Irish fans didn’t care then, and they certainly don’t care now that English-born Jonathan Walters helped guide Ireland to this summer’s Euro 2016 finals in France.
Those players were English-born and English-bred, albeit with Irish parents or an Irish background, but where do we draw the line in rugby? Ireland great Ronan O’Gara was born in America but has been in Ireland since he could walk, same with Mils Muliaina in New Zealand. CJ Stander on the other hand, Jared Payne, David Smith, Gareth Anscombe, Sean Maitland? Do we care enough that it matters or is winning the eternal solution to any problem in rugby?
Are we okay with Toby Faletau playing for Wales after moving from Tonga to Ebbw Vale at seven years old? Do we condemn Fekitoa playing for the All Blacks instead of Tonga after moving to New Zealand at 17 or Hartley for England after moving from New Zealand at 16?
It depends on opinion, but most will form theirs on a player’s passion for a country. Are they proud to pull on the jersey or is there allegiance motived by financial reasons?
It’s hard to quantify, as player’s are usually very uptight on such matters or blurt out the stock standard lines about ‘pride’ or how much of an ‘honour’ it is to pull on the jersey.
But with that said, sometimes pictures and videos say more than words ever can.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
Read More About: All Blacks, cj stander, dylan hartley, Foreign Rugby Players, gareth anscombe, ireland international rugby, irish rugby, Mils Mulaina, Naturalised, rugby news, sean maitland, Six Nations, Virimi Vakatawa