The current eligibility rules for the game mean it’s possible to play for a nation that has no other connection to you except for the fact you have lived there for three years or more. Is it time for a change?
Almost every country in the world has players that have qualified for them through residency. In Ireland, CJ Stander is the latest to have adopted a new nation having moved away from his native South Africa to sign up with Munster in June 2012.
Originally, Stander was signed as a ‘project player’, due to IRFU restrictions on the number of foreign-born players that can be signed by the provinces.
The concept of ‘project players’ highlights how national set-ups are actively seeking out talent from across the world with the idea of those players qualifying on residency.
In other cases, the rules state that a player may qualify for another nation if they have at least one parent born in that country, or even one grandparent. Wales’ Gareth Anscombe – originally of New Zealand – qualified through his mother, who was born in Cardiff, whereas England’s Thomas Waldrom only qualified so quickly for England because he found out he actually had an English grandparent.
At the moment, the rules seem too lax and, as Alex Shaw pointed out in his recent article for Rugby World, nations are constantly eyeing up talent from rivals through tenuous links. Of course, the issues now are nothing in comparison to the amateur days when eligibility was something of a free-for-all. This is encapsulated in the case of Jamie Salmon, who represented both New Zealand and England. Yet in the professional era, something more concrete is needed to make it fair for all.
So what can be done to help to alleviate these issues? One possible solution is to change the residency rules so they only affect players who are 18 or younger. That means you will no longer see players swapping countries in their mid-to-late 20s hoping to play for a nation once it becomes apparent they won’t get into their first-choice team. Additionally, this would not prevent players who were not born in the country they were raised in from playing for their country.
It may mean there is more of a shift in the top nations ‘poaching’ young talent from schools and colleges, but this is something that is happening more and more anyway as countries continue to improve their global scouting networks. To believe otherwise would be naïve in the extreme.
Moreover, the rule regarding grandparents seems unnecessary and contrived to allow players to swap between nations. If one or more of your parents comes from that nation then that should be good enough.
To play devil’s advocate, it could be argued that the current rules mean smaller nations are able to compete with larger ones by delving outside of their own player pool. When one considers England has 340,000 registered players and Wales 74,000, it’s not a massive surprise that this is happening. Any changes to the residency or eligiblity rules could severely hinder these nations in terms of player depth.
It may even be that different rules should apply for both tier 1 and tier 2 nations. With tier 2 teams being recognised as emerging sides, perhaps they should have greater access to talent from other player pools, whilst the emphasis for tier 1 teams should be developing homegrown players.
This is a complex problem without easy answers. Indeed, others have suggested extending the residency rule period from three to five years, but preventing players from switching nations once they have established themselves in a top domestic team from the age of 18 onwards seems to have logic to it.
However, when you have France calling up David Smith, a Samoan-born New Zealand Sevens player who happens to play for Toulon, only to find out he didn’t qualify a few hours later, you know the situation is a mess and needs to be sorted.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena