It has been a busy few days in the world of Rugby Union.Two Rugby Players

On 10 May 2017, the draw for the pool stage of the 2019 World Cup in Japan was confirmed during a ceremony in Kyoto, with England once again finding themselves placed in the dreaded “pool of death”, along with France and Argentina.

At the same time, the World Rugby Council gave its unanimous blessing to long-mooted reforms to increase the period of time a player has to be resident in a country before becoming eligible to represent it in international competition.  The revised eligibility requirements mean that Regulation 8, which governs eligibility to play for national representative teams, will be amended so that:

  • a player must have lived in the country for 5 consecutive years, rather than the current period of 3 consecutive years, immediately preceding the time of playing of the national side (effective from 31 December 2020); and
  • The addition of a new residency criteria, which permits players who have 10 years of cumulative residency to be eligible to play for national representative teams (immediately effective, from 10 May 2017).

Following the vote, World Rugby’s official press release confirmed that the changes were designed to “create a framework that protects the integrity and credibility of international rugby” and the reformed Regulation 8 would ensure that “a player has a genuine, close, credible and established link with the nation of representation”.

The driving force behind the rule change, World Rugby vice-chairman and former Argentinian international Agustin Pichot, stated that it was a “historic moment for the sport” and justified the increase in the eligibility period on the basis that “National team representation is the reward for devoting your career, your rugby life, to your nation and these amendments will ensure that the international arena is full of players devoted to their nation”.

One of the reasons for the reforms to Regulation 8, which has previously been considered by Sports Shorts, is to stem the “talent drain” of players from tier-two nations, such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, to tier-one nations, where, after three years residency, those player could pledge their allegiance to their new home should they choose to do so. This flow of talent away from the Pacific Islands was conspicuous from the team sheets for the November 2016 test between France v Australia, in which all four wings were Fijian.

By increasing the amount of time that it takes to attain international eligibility on the basis of residency to 5 years, World Rugby hopes that tier-two nations will see fewer players, who are eligible to represent them by virtue of place of birth or lineage, pledging their allegiance to other nations, thereby allowing them to compete more effectively on the international stage.

Of course, it will not just be players from tier-two nations who will be affected by the increased residency requirement but other, so-called, “project players”.  Irish international CJ Stander, who will tour New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions this summer on the back of his outstanding performances for club and country, was born in South Africa, an established Rugby Union powerhouse.  But, having moved to Munster in June 2012, with potentially qualifying to play for his new home at the forefront of both his and the Irish Rugby Football Union’s thoughts, Stander eventually made his debut for Ireland in February 2016.

As can be seen by the unanimous backing of the World Rugby Council, the reforms were backed by tier-one nations who hitherto have been able to take advantage of the residency requirements. This included both the English Rugby Football Union and the French federation.  Indeed, the latter had previously pledged to stop awarding new caps to non‑French passport holders under the former 3 year residency rule, in what national Bernard Laporte described as a “political decision” that would send a “strong signal for French academies and our youngsters that we’ll play a maximum number of Frenchmen”.

But will the reforms achieve World Rugby’s goals? Dan Leo, former Samoa captain and the founder of Pacific Island Player Welfare, has raised concerns that it may lead to young, vulnerable players simply leaving home at an early age. Commenting on the reforms, Leo queried whether “taking people away from their families at a young age is a good thing if they can’t be supported culturally”, instead noting that better regulation of unscrupulous agents, who “promise the far side of the moon and don’t have to really deliver”, would be a more effective means of stopping the exodus of talent from the Pacific Islands.

And therein lies the rub, at least in respect of those players from tier-two nations who move abroad for, entirely legitimate, financial reasons.

The economic benefits that are on offer in New Zealand, Australia and, increasingly, the major Northern hemisphere professional leagues, can be hard to turn down.  Indeed, Fijian-born England international Nathan Hughes spoke with laudable candour when confirming that part of his motivation for pursuing an international career with England was financial. With match fees of around £22,000 per game for England, Hughes made it clear that “I play my rugby to support my family and put shelter over their heads”.

Until that financial disparity is at least reduced, the incentive for players from the Pacific Island to move abroad and potentially represent other nations will remain, with players possibly moving at a younger age in order to meet the revised 5 year criteria.

One way to begin to address this issue could be to establish a Super Rugby franchise in one of the Pacific Islands, something that has long been discussed but has yet to come to fruition.  Although a Pacific Islands-based franchise would not entirely stem the flow of talent, it would at least offer a percentage of those players the chance to remain closer to home whilst playing in the Southern hemisphere’s preeminent club competition and enjoying the attendant financial rewards.

Consequently, whilst the reforms to the residency rules will no doubt lead to fewer “project players”, pleasing those Rugby Union fans who (whether fairly or not) believe some players operate under flags of convenience, the economic reality of professional Rugby Union is likely to prove a tougher problem for the game’s key stakeholders to solve.