Rugby_PlayerThis time last year, rugby union was building up to the crowning match of its showpiece, the World Cup Final.  It was not a surprise to see the All Blacks win for a third time.  Given the retirements of half a dozen greats, including Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, it would have been harsh of the script-writers to pen a sad ending.

What may have been a little more surprising was the failure of any Northern Hemisphere team to make it beyond the quarter finals.  The result was an epic rugby hangover north of the equator.  However, even the most horrendous hangover is temporary and there is a new sense of optimism (albeit a cautious one) with the November internationals just around the corner.

The internationals this year will pose an interesting set of questions, such as:

  • Will anyone beat the All Blacks?
  • Which players across Britain and Ireland will play themselves into Warren Gatland’s little book of “Players who could be Lions”?

One issue that has been rumbling in the background for some time, and will likely be mentioned more than once over the next few weeks, is that of the eligibility rules for players representing countries at international level. 

While it has been clear for a long time that many nations field players who were not born in the country (current examples include the Vunipolas and Dylan Hartley (the captain) for England, Faletau for Wales, Payne for Ireland), the statistics from last year’s World Cup were stark.  Around 22% of the original squads posted for the World Cup on average were players not born in the country they represented.

The relevant rule for eligibility is Regulation 8 of the World Rugby Handbook.  A player may play for the senior national side, the next most senior national side (often the ‘A’ team) or the senior 7’s side of the country in which:

  • the player was born;
  • one parent or grandparent was born; or
  • the player has completed thirty six consecutive months of Residence (defined by the Regulations as primary or permanent home) immediately preceding the time of playing.

Once a player has played for the senior national team, next most senior or 7’s sides, that player is not eligible to then play for a different country.  It is the final bullet point above which receives much of the focus, as it requires no other connection to a country other than 3 years of residency.

Many will not see a 3 year residency rule as a problem (particularly those teams and any players who benefit) but others are a bit more critical.  Agustín Pichot, the highly respected former Argentinian scrum-half, simply called it wrong.  He believes “it is very important to keep the identity of your national team”.

His opinion is important, as Pichot is currently the Vice-Chairman of World Rugby, the promulgators of the Regulations.  Given the unrest and the Vice-Chair’s view, it is perhaps unsurprising that World Rugby announced earlier this month a “root and branch review” of Regulation 8.

It is highly unlikely that the residency rule will be removed or altered significantly in its application.  Pichot himself has mentioned the possibility of the residency period extending to 5 years, the same period applied in football by FIFA (save for common nationalities).

A difference of 2 years may not seem large, but an international rugby career does not last long and so this could have potentially significant implications for players who wish to qualify to play for a new country through residency.  Will a coach look at a player who has had to wait those extra years to qualify through residency or prefer the younger one who is eligible anyway and has greater longevity?

It is unlikely to be a short review, given the number of vested interests on the table and it will be a tough balance to strike.  But as Nathan Hughes prepares for his first experience of the England squad following his residency qualification, and Irish fans count down the days until Bundee Aki’s qualification, there may be a time in the near future where fewer of these players get the chance to play for adopted nations.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  You decide.

The issue of eligibility in sport has been covered by our firm in further detail here.