A year or so before rugby became an officially professional code, sometime in late 1994, I guess, I chatted with the chairman of the NZRU Rob Fisher about the implications of the change.
He told me that New Zealand and Australia would probably suffer, in terms of losing players to cashed-up England and France.
“But we have to push it forward to ensure the worldwide success of the game,” he said.
The IRB, to its credit, has put in place a smart and essentially fair system of ensuring the rights of players to ply their trade at the international level, without unduly compromising the nationalistic element that makes Test rugby such a fervent and passionate spectacle.
The main elements of this system are:
1. Once a player represents a nation at the Test level, he cannot play Test rugby for another nation.
This once-a-Wallaby-always-a-Wallaby rule (or once any other nation) rule stops the possibility of national sides buying great Test stars from other nations. Test rugby is saved by this rule from becoming like the England Premiership League where hardly any English players represent for the great clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea and so on.
George Gregan, Richie McCaw and the other stars of the professional era have their chance to play over 100 Tests for their country rather than being bought off by the big offers from other rugby nations.
2. A player born in a country is automatically eligible to play for that country, if he wants to, even if he has lived somewhere else for most of his life.
You could call this the Brad Thorn rule. Thorn spent all his adult life inAustralia. But because he was born in Mosgiel, a small town near Dunedin, he was eligible to play for the All Blacks when he left rugby league and the Brisbane Broncos and joined up with the Canterbury Crusaders.
I reckon that 90 percent-plus of Test players represent the nation of their birth. And this is a good thing. Fans need to feel an emotional affinity, particularly through blood ties, with the players of the teams they are supporting.
3. If a player has spent three years playing senior rugby in a country, which is not where he was born, providing he hasn’t played Test rugby, he can represent the nation of his current residence.
This could be called the Taweru Kerr-Barlow dispensation. The Chiefs brilliant halfback was born in Darwin but has lived most of his life in New Zealand. He desperately wanted to be an All Black, so offers to play in Australia and consider a Wallaby jersey were rejected.
The Franks brothers, the stalwart All Black props, were born in Melbourne. They were both ‘warehoused’ by the All Blacks selectorsto stop them from playing for the Wallabies.
Something of the same thing was done by Robbie Deans with Quade Cooper, who was eligible to play for the All Blacks by right of birth. At the RWC 2011 tournament I saw a placard making this very point: “A DINGO STOLE OUR QUADIE.”
And this is where Mike Harris comes into the picture. He was not wanted for Super Rugby any of the five franchises in New Zealand. Ewen McKenzie made him an offer for the Reds which he couldn’t refuse.
He was right to take up the offer, as history now shows.
He got into the Wallabies because of injuries to any number of players and now he has won a Test by kicking a penalty from near touch on the bell against Wales, and helped the Wallabies to a memorable 18-18 draw against the All Blacks by kicking five penalties out of five.
Despite the protestations of the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, Harris is a genuine Wallaby. He has qualified correctly and his performances in the gold jersey indicate that he respects the team and the system that has given him his chance at international play.
You could argue that this is the players get out of jail card. If they cannot see a way of representing the country of their birth or if they really want to represent another country or if another country wants them and their homeland doesn’t, this is the dispensation that gives the player the chance to change his rugby destiny.
It does work for Australian rugby better than it does for New Zealand rugby, as Hansen suggests. But he is wrong to use this as an argument against the rule. New Zealand rugby could have had Harris, if they had wanted him. They didn’t want him, not even for Super Rugby.
Increasingly, England and France are using this dispensation to beef up their teams. There are several New Zealanders and Islanders playing for England, for example. That is their choice, which is how it should be.
But this initiative by England (after Scotland’s ‘kilted Kiwis’ selections) is indicative of a hypocritical change of attitude by a number of the senior UK rugby writers. For years they have bagged NZ rugby for ‘stealing’ Pacific Island players. Now the England selectors are being begged to pick the eligible New Zealanders, Pacific Islander players, South Africans, anyone in fact who can strengthen the wayward England team.
We don’t hear the argument from these writers much now about the All Blacks being Samoa/Fiji B.
The fact is that not many players born out of New Zealand have represented the All Blacks in the professional era, about 15 or so. And most of these players, like Jerry Collins, came to New Zealand very young and were educated from primary school through in NZ and were New Zealanders in every respect.
On the other hand, there are probably 50 Zealanders playing international rugby right now for countries other than NZ. There were about 60 NZ players representing countries like Japan, Australia, Samoa, and Tonga at the RWC 2011.
The days of players like the great Des Connor representing the Wallabies and the All Blacks are over.
But in the modern era there is something to be said for a system that preserves the singular nature of Test rugby while also preserving the chances of players to play Test rugby, if a country wants them in their team.