As a twenty-something who is looking to emigrate to America, the debate surrounding project players in rugby is something that makes me uncomfortable.
There is a growing number of people who are opposed to the concept of foreign-born players representing their country, and in the current climate of Brexit and the influx of refugees in Syria, that’s just a little scary.
I would hate to think that after finally moving to America and raising a family, that I or any of my children would face resistance from people should we be asked to represent Ireland or America.
In rugby, project players are foreign-born players who play for another country after a three-year residency. Some national unions, IRFU (Irish Rugby Football Union) and the SRU (Scottish rugby union), are specifically targeting uncapped players in the likes of South Africa and New Zealand who can eventually become ‘Irish’ or ‘Scottish’.
It’s highly cynical yes, but it’s an easy way to get good players, and it’s within the rules.
There are signs that World Rugby are looking to increase the residency period to at least five years. Some quarters are calling for it to be abolished altogether.
Why are these players moving country?
The flow seems to be from the south to the north, and there is a myriad of factors.
The greater sums of money on offer, the lower standard of rugby, or less competition for places in both club and country are all on-field reasons.
There’s also the chance to experience a completely new culture in a new country while playing rugby for a living. Who wouldn’t want to travel around the world, and still be able to get paid in their job of choosing?
Can anyone blame the likes of Bundee Aki, Rhys Marshall, or Tyler Bleyendaal from coming north? Each of them came from New Zealand rugby and had their paths blocked by more senior players. Given the opportunity to move, they all took it.
When a player moves to another club, you want them to buy into the culture. Can anyone suggest that Aki hasn’t bought into the culture of Connacht?
Bundee Aki was a talisman as Connacht shocked many to win the PRO12 last season. He put his body on the line for Connacht.
He is a wonderful representative for the province, and would be a wonderful representative for Ireland should that happen in a year.
It’s because of players like Aki, and Richardt Strauss or CJ Stander, that I’m uncomfortable with the hostility towards foreign-born players in national squads.
Those three players are the success stories of this rule.
Who are we to say that Richardt Strauss doesn’t now have an Irish connection after being in this country since 2009. Strauss has an Irish wife, and on his international debut sang the Amhran na Bhfiann in the Irish language, despite not having any background in the language. It was something that CJ Stander copied when he made his Irish debut last season.
This is a perfect example of a professional who moved to another country to have an experience, who bought into the culture and thrived because of it.
Strauss even became an Irish citizen two years after making his Irish debut, and you can see him staying in Ireland after his playing days are over.
On the flip side, when it doesn’t work, it polices itself for the most part.
Take the example of Steven Sykes. The South African lock had a brillant Super Rugby season for the Sharks, before Leinster signed him as a project player. The youngster had expected to walk into the Irish team, but was shipped back to South Africa after only four appearances.
The difference between Strauss and Sykes was attitude. Strauss bought into the Irish culture, and made a home for himself in Dublin, whereas Sykes arrived for cynical reasons.
For every Sykes, there’s a player who wants to move to explore. There are people who emigrate all the time. How would you feel if you moved country, and suddenly people questioned whether you could be a part of that community or not?
Who is to say that after moving that I wouldn’t immerse myself into the culture? Why should someone else get to say that I’m not an American?
I’m not naive enough to think that there aren’t players who do take advantage of the rule to play international rugby, but should we get rid of it to prevent the people who it benefits organically?
I’m not saying that the current residency period in rugby is sufficient. It probably isn’t. But questioning the intentions of every uncapped foreign player, and saying that it’s a disgrace that they can play for their new country is wrong.
That’s the real disgrace.