The Great Debate: Eligibility in International Rugby

When it comes to rugby, very little compares to the honour of playing for your country. Whether you get to pull on the iconic All Black jersey or play with the English red rose on your shirt, it’s a dream few players will ever actually see come to fruition.

And yet, despite the pride international caps inspire, they’re also the source of some of the most acrimonious controversy to infect the game. Welcome to the rage-inducing, battle-spawning eligibility debate.


Qualifying for International Caps

The truth is, it’s no longer quite as simple as playing for your homeland. The world, after all, is a much smaller place than it was when rugby was born, with international travel far easier and families more able to move abroad for good. The birth of professional rugby and high-paying clubs has also meant talented players may well spend almost all of their working lives away from the land of their birth.

Acknowledging these inevitable trends of migration and mixed ancestry, the IRB’s official rules enabling promising rugby players to play on a national team are really quite flexible – rather too much so, some might say.

Players can qualify for a national side in one of three ways. Firstly, and rather uncontroversially, you simply have to be born in the country in question. Alternatively, a parent or grandparent born in the country will also get you a spot on the team. Finally, you can qualify by spending the three consecutive years before your international debut as a resident in that country – and it’s this final one that has sparked controversy across the rugby world.

The more cynical among you might have spotted a catch already. If you were lucky enough to have all of your grandparents and parents born in different nations, couldn’t you chop and change at will between all six of their birth lands, as well as your own?

Fortunately, the IRB are a step ahead on this one. Once you’ve played for your country’s national side, or their ‘seconds’ team such as the Junior All Blacks or the Ireland Wolfhounds, you’re pegged to that country for life. This stops players switching countries should they slip down the picking order in their original rugby nation.

So those are the rules – and on paper they look conveniently straight forward. But the reality is that the issue of who players represent has led to bitter disputes between countries for decades.


Bitter Disputes

One of the most high profile clashes came last year courtesy of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who spoke out after his side drew with the Wallabies. The bulk of Australia’s points in the match had been scored by Kiwi Mike Harris, who spent the first 21 years of his life in Auckland.

Hansen branded this evidence of Australia ‘pinching our players’, snapping: ‘It’s time you developed your own players in your own country’. Nor is Harris the only Kiwi to switch allegiances – Digby Ioane and Quade Cooper are both high profile Wallabies born in New Zealand.

Meanwhile on the European stage, last year saw Wales and Scotland locking horns in a bitter dispute over another talented young fly-half. Welsh-born Simon Shingler was proudly announced as part of the Scottish Six Nations squad, thanks to his Scottish born Mother.

Wales swiftly complained, pointing out that Shingler had played for the Welsh Under-20’s side and was, effectively, tied to them for life. Dropped from Scotland – and now ignored by Wales – he is still yet to make his senior international debut.

There’s also been a fair share of Northern-Southern hemisphere bickering, with Wales and New Zealand finding themselves in conflict in the early 2000s. Two Kiwi players, Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson, who both believed they had Welsh grandparents, turned out to have no connections of the kind. Unable to back up their assertions with documentary proof, they were both turfed out of the Welsh squad unceremoniously.


Players Voice Indignance

It’s not just national rugby unions who voice their dissatisfaction at the status quo – several famous players have branded the current situation a disgrace. A couple of years of residency, they argue, shouldn’t allow a foreign player to leapfrog home-grown talent for a place in the national side.

Former England Captain Nick Easter launched a scathing attack on the ‘residency’ policy earlier this year, after losing his place in the national side. ‘There’s no reason why England should be getting players in this way with the population of players we’ve got,’ he argued. ‘It’s a bit of an insult to our rugby. How come we’re not developing our own players?’

There are certainly a noticeable handful of players in the squad who were born overseas. Some, such as rising star Manu Tuilagi or former captain Dylan Hartley, moved to Britain in their early teens and have spent all of their formative rugby years in the country they now represent.

But others arrived on English shores rather later. In particular, former Hurricanes and Crusaders man Thomas Waldrom was selected for the 2011 England training squad, despite only moving to England the year before. How? Never selected for New Zealand international duty, he rather fortuitously discovered during his first season with the Leicester Tigers that his grandmother had been born in England, thus making him eligible.

Selection choices such as these rile fans and infuriate rugby lovers, who claim young English players will stop aspiring to wear the national jersey, opting instead to ditch these ambitions and follow the big money to countries like France.


Drawing the Line

So where should we draw the line? Fans from smaller nations, such as Fiji, argue that something needs to be done to stop Rugby Superpowers from stealing their most promising players. Players on the fringes of international selection complain bitterly that foreign-born players are taking the spots they themselves deserve on international sides.

The residency qualification remains a hotbed of debate. Whilst it gives talented players from non-rugby countries the chance to perform on the global stage, it’s clearly open to abuse. Allowing players to simply nip across the globe in search of international glory, after being rejected from their own national side, is hardly in the spirit of the game.

Why not insist that foreign players have spent the majority of their rugby education and professional life in their adopted country, as a condition of allowing them into the international side? Whatever their passport, this at least means they have a bond and a legacy built up in the nation they go on to represent.

The honour of playing for a national side shouldn’t be bestowed on technicalities, ‘number of days of residence’ or a long lost grandparent. Failure to reconsider the flimsy eligibility requirements for international players will only damage the game further. At best, fans will start to switch off from international fixtures. At worst, we’ll end up diluting the game in its purest form.


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