The problem with eligibility in modern Rugby
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On Monday my article took a look at the extraordinary week that was in regards to the international eligibility storm that has raged in the rugby headlines of both hemispheres.
Now the spotlight will turn and shine on some of the individual cases (some damaging, some nothing more than a storm in a tea cup) that have involved the international eligibility rules.
This article will also discuss which unions are engaging in that dirty ‘P’ word (poaching) that’s been thrown around among administrators and fans of major rugby playing nations in recent times.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of some so-called ‘poaching’ cases, it’s important to actually understand what the term means in regards to international rugby.
For the purpose of this article, it will be loosely defined as any selection scenario where the selecting country has to reference the international eligibility rules to justify the individual’s inclusion in their national squad.
What the media and us fans make a ‘big deal’ out of has shaped this poor definition and it unfortunately results in individuals and unions being criticised over certain selections that really shouldn’t have to be looked at twice.
For the record, my own definition of poaching is where a country makes a selection that may adhere to the IRB’s international eligibility rules, but when looking at the individual’s circumstances/history it becomes apparent that the selection runs in the face of the spirit and credibility of the international game.
At this point I’d also like to make you aware that this article will look at a wide range of cases that have been associated with the weakened definition of poaching, but again for the record, this author might not necessarily agree with said case being labelled as an example of poaching.
Ok, now that the disclaimers are out of the way, to answer the question above in short (who is poaching?), everyone is (remember the loose definition). Of the IRB’s 17 high performance nations, there might be two cleanskins in the bunch (Argentina and Romania).
Of the 15 remaining nations, history tells us that all have dabbled in the practice of poaching to varying degrees over time.
Australia has had a significant amount of the mud slung in its direction over the last week with Steve Hansen unleashing on his Tran-Tasman rivals following his team’s 18-all draw against the Wallabies.
No doubt some of it stuck with almost all of our points being scored by a kiwi who’s spent two years in Australia and qualifies to play for his adopted homeland due to his grandmother being a dinky-dye Aussie. Furthermore, it was only in 2008 that he was lining up for New Zealand’s world champion under 20′s team as a 19 year old.
When we look at Wallabies from the past decade, it becomes apparent that we do have a history of selecting players who have represented other countries at junior level.
Current Wallaby squad member, Sekope Kepu represented New Zealand at under 17, 19 and 21 levels despite being born in Sydney. South African natives Dan Vickerman and Clyde Rathbone have also played for the Wallabies following involvement in junior Bok representative sides.
A quick look at the birth places of current and past Wallabies uncovers a number of players who began life overseas. Some like Digby Ioane moved to Australia well before they started to seriously kick around a Gilbert, while others like Sitaleki Timani started calling Australia home in their late teenage years after showing a significant amount of football ability.
So it appears there may be something behind Hansen’s rant, but are Steve’s remarks shattering a glasshouse of hypocrisy that he’s sitting in like John O’Neill would have you believe?
For mine, two of the more recent blaring examples of All Black ‘poaching’ are the Sivivatu and Lauaki cases. Both were born in the Pacific Islands, represented the ‘Lions style’ combined Pacific Island team in 2004 and were then selected for the All Blacks the following year.
Sitiveni Sivivatu was born in Fiji and didn’t move to New Zealand until he was 17, well after showing his potential as a young rugby player. He went on to earn 45 caps and score 29 tries for the All Blacks between 2005 and 2011.
At the age of 13, Sione Lauaki moved to New Zealand (from his native Tonga) a little earlier than his PI team mate. He went on to represent the All Blacks 18 times between 2005 and 2008.
Both Sivivatu and Lauaki were capped by the Pacific Islands team three times during their southern hemisphere tour in 2004. At the time these weren’t recognised as test caps (hence their ability to go on and represent the All Blacks), however this has since been updated.
Both players faced the Haka on that 2004 tour and (fun fact) both have accumulated at least one test try (2 in the case of Sivivatu) against the mighty All Blacks.
There was a backlash from the Pacific rugby community following their selection in the 2005 All Blacks squad. It was suggested that this Pacific Islands team had been used as an All Black development tool for players to play at an international standard of rugby.
This lead to PI games in 2008 (and will again be the case if they tour in the future) being included as test caps to ensure that players who are selected for the Pacific Islands team can then only be selected for the Pacific nation that they are eligible for.
Go a little further into the history books and we find a case of the New Zealand Rugby Union picking off a true blue Aussie in the form of scrum half Steve Devine. Born and bred in Australia and representing his country of birth at under 21 level, Devine moved to Auckland where he spent the required 3 years to qualify for the All Blacks on residency grounds. He went on to earn 10 caps for the All Blacks and was included in the 30 man squad that finished third at the 2003 World Cup.
Some one-eyed Aussie supporters could also mount a case for the evergreen Brad Thorn following his 14 caps for Queensland and eight caps for Australia in rugby league.
Thorn was born in New Zealand and spent the first eight years of his life in the land of the long white cloud before moving to Australia.
After moving across the ditch he took up league and the rest, as they say, is history. After beginning his professional league career with the Broncos in 1994, Thorn switched code and national allegiances in 2001 when he signed with the Crusaders.
Just like Australia, there also seems to be quite a number of All Black representatives born overseas.
As well as three of the four names listed above, recent stars like Collins, So’oialo, Rokocoko, Kaino, Toeava, Franks and now Kerr Barlow would all have been eligible to represent another country as they were born outside of the country they ended up giving their allegiances to.
And like Australia, some foreign born All Blacks came to New Zealand early in life and developed through their exceptional system, while some made the move much later.
When looking at the six powers in the north, much of the ‘poaching’ is done using long range missiles that are landing all over the southern hemisphere.
Argentina has long been a hunting ground for Italian raids with their national captain and arguably the best number eight in the northern hemisphere headlining the list of Argentine born Azzuri.
While the ANZAC’s pick off Pacific Island talent from close range, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are not immune of the advances from the home nations. Wales number eight Toby Faletau was born in Tonga but moved to Wales as a seven year old so we can’t really blame him or the dragons for who he decided to pin his allegiances to.
Boom centre Manu Tuilagi was born in Samoa, the country that his two older brothers represent(ed), however he decided to turn his back on royal blue for white after seven years in England.
Now Mako Vunipola is set to make his international debut for England after being called into England’s elite player squad.
Despite being born in New Zealand to Tongan parents, if Fijian coach Inoke Male is to be believed, Vunipola represents the beginning of a flood of Pacific Island eligible players who will switch allegiances to countries like England and France due to the money on offer.
In the last five or so years, England has seemed to develop a love affair with South Africa born players with numerous examples of potential Boks switching their allegiances to the lily whites after reaching the required three years of residency.
Matt Stevens, Hendre Fourie, Mouritz Botha, Nick Abendanon and Brad Barritt are all examples of this phenomenon. Richardt Strauss’s selection in the most recent Irish squad has added weight to the claims of northern hemisphere teams poaching players from South Africa.
England’s love affair with South Africa may only have been exceeded by the one they have with New Zealand.
In more recent times you could even further define it as their love affair with New Zealand rugby league representatives which has included the selection of previous Kiwi players Henry Paul, Lesley Vainikolo and Shontayne Hape. There have been other recent examples of New Zealand born and bred rugby talent playing for England such as Dylan Hartley, Mark van Gisbergen and Riki Flutey.
The fact is that for all the ‘poaching’ that the New Zealand are supposed to do, no rugby nation gives more to the rest then they do. Countless examples can be found from the top tier nations to the developing rugby nations.
Just this week Sean Maitland has pledged his allegiances to the Scots despite being a solid domestic player that just hasn’t been able to crack an All Blacks squad.
Although there are examples of All Blacks who were born in the Pacific nations, there are many more examples of New Zealand born players representing the islands as a result of the heritage based eligibility rule.
Australia is another country that supposedly takes so much from the rugby world, but when you look a little closer you’ll find that we’ve given a lot like our cousins across the Tasman.
Brent Cockbain, brother of legendary Australian blindside Matt was ironically first called up to the Welsh squad by none other than Steve Hansen during his reign as Wales’ national coach.
Others like Steve Devine to New Zealand, Luke McClean and Craig Gower to Italy, Nathan Hines and Dan Parks to Scotland and David Paice to England are recent examples of Australian born and bred players who have switched allegiances to another top tier nation.
To further leap to the defence of Australia and New Zealand who arguably cop more criticism than most other rugby nations (even if it might be coming from our other ANZAC partner), both are multi cultural societies. Australia in particular, with the most recent census uncovering the fact that one in 5 residents in 2011 was born overseas.
Therefore, seven of our current squad of 30 being born overseas is almost a perfect reflection of our society. Furthermore, a significant amount of migration to Australia has come from New Zealand. Due to this trend and some associated societal issues, I don’t expect the number of New Zealand born Wallabies to be decreasing any time soon.
Like Australia experiencing significant amounts of migration from New Zealand, the land of the long white cloud has experienced similarly impressive amounts of migration from the Pacific Islands. Again this is a trend that I can’t see reversing and there will continue to be a good number of first and second generation Islanders playing for the All Blacks.
Due to these demographic factors, there’s a certain point where it should be acceptable for the Wallabies to select a Kiwi and the All Blacks to select an Islander and but no doubt it’s time the rules were put under the microscope to ensure credibility and fairness going ahead.
Some of the legitimate examples above represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of international poaching.
From this it’s clear to see that despite the finger pointing that’s gone on over the last week, just about all serious rugby nations have involved themselves in this questionable practice.
Since professionalism, the situation that we’re left with was always going to be hard to contain under the current rule structure as the larger unions have added financial incentives to international caps and players have spread themselves around the globe in search of the best deal.
It has resulted in players switching allegiances after notching up the 3 short years of required residency or taking a quick look at the family tree to see if there’s a fall back plan should they not be able to crack their native squad.
The rules have left us with some great scenarios for international rugby like Wellington born Lome Fa’atau proudly representing Samoa, the country of his heritage and the birthplace of his parents.
But the more publicised eligibility issues tend to be the negative ones, where a stronger rugby nation is profiting from selecting a player from a nation with a similar standing or, in the more ugly scenarios, a weaker nation.
It’s also important to note that all of these unions are operating within the rules. It might not be within the spirit of international play but the rules are clear for everyone to see and none of the cases above are examples of breaches of these rules.
However, it’s become apparent that the eligibility goalposts need to be moved to ensure the international game nurtures a culture of good spirit and fairness.
It’s no easy task but the game’s governing body must make some changes to these eligibility rules. The result has to ensure the happy stories of players switching allegiances (Lome to Samoa) continue but the more questionable selections by rugby superpowers are limited.
The credibility of the international game must be maintained and it can’t become a club league-like situation where players flock to where the money is.
Fiji’s Coach Male is making some scary predictions that, if true, will ensure that the eligibility storm will continue to rage on into the future.
I cringe to think what this could mean for the international game, which is one of rugby’s greatest assets.
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