The positives of World rugby's eligibility laws
OPINION: Following Joe Schmidt’s decision to select South African Jean Kleyn in Ireland’s World Cup squad, the issues of rugby’s international eligibility, residency, poaching and the concept of project players have all reared their heads once again.
A number of pundits have come forward to express their frustration at the selection of Kleyn or others like him across the 20 teams that are set to contest the World Cup over the next eight weeks. While entitled to their opinions on the matter, it is disappointing that these frustrations are vented at individual players who have done nothing but follow the rules for eligibility as they are laid down by World Rugby.
To question the potential loyalty of players whom you have no idea of how they think of themselves in terms of nationality, or to suggest the jersey would not mean as much to them as it would to a citizen or a player born in that particular country, would seem presumptuous.
Whether through ancestry or residency, there is no outward barometer for how Irish, English or Samoan a player may feel and if there is a frustration there to be vented, it should be vented at the rule-makers, not the players.
It’s an emotive topic, obviously, and unfortunately there is no solution that will keep everyone happy. What has been particularly disappointing, though, is the amount of charts of ‘foreign-born’ players being waved around like validation for certain sides and condemnation for others (there are 138 players chosen for the World Cup who are representing countries they were not born in).
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England’s foreign flavour
Firstly, it’s a rather poor evaluation of, well, everything. Take England for example. Eddie Jones’ side boasts six foreign-born players in the form of Manu Tuilagi, Joe Cokanasiga, Sam Underhill, Willi Heinz and the Vunipola brothers.
Tuilagi moved to England in his teens and played his rugby at Hinckley College and in the Leicester Tigers academy. He has lived in England for 15 years and is a product of the country’s rugby system. When he is flagged as ‘foreign-born’, is his commitment to the cause being questioned?
Underhill and Cokanasiga were born in the USA and Fiji respectively but both were raised in the UK with their parents serving in the British Armed Forces. You would hope they would be deemed English enough. Heinz qualifies for England through his English grandmother.
As for the Vunipola brothers, they embody the multitude of options open to players in terms of Test eligibility and why nothing can ever be so clean cut as to limit this sort of thing to where a player was born. Both players could have represented Tonga through ancestry, New Zealand (Mako) or Australia (Billy) through birth, or Wales or England through residency in their childhood years.
How much does either brother remember of the short time spent in the countries of their birth? And yet that is a worthwhile metric for judging a World Cup squad by? Migration happens all over the world for a whole host of reasons, such as economic or education motivations, and that is celebrated and welcomed, so why when it comes to rugby does it become an issue?
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The Kleyn v Toner debate
In fairness, the English example is not the best to illustrate this, as apart from Danny Care’s comments surrounding his omission from the national squad, it has not been raised as an issue, save for some sporadic mentions on social media. Ireland has seen plenty of criticism for the selection of Kleyn, though, whether through fans, pundits or columnists.
There is definitely an emotively-driven element to it, due to the absence of stalwart Devin Toner, something which was not helped by World Rugby vice president Agustín Pichot’s hasty tweet regarding the Irishman’s omission. Having already spearheaded World Rugby’s move from a three-year to five-year residency period for players wishing to qualify for a new nation, Pichot seemed to suggest that Toner take his case to World Rugby to ask why he is not playing in the Rugby World Cup.
Toner has been a devoted servant to Irish rugby and has contributed enormously to the growth of Schmidt’s side during the New Zealander’s tenure, but a 33-year-old lock not making a World Cup squad is perhaps not as shocking as it might seem. Any player in their 30s faces the inevitable decline in physical ability. For some it comes earlier, for some later, but once you are passed that mark, there’s a good chance your place in a squad is going to come under more vociferous competition. Just ask Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown.
James Ryan has taken the Irish engine room by storm, Tadhg Beirne has come back into the equation following his move from the Scarlets to Munster and Iain Henderson boasts plenty of versatility. As much as Kleyn is painted as the bad guy, those other three are as much the reason behind Toner’s omission as the South African-born lock is.
At a guess, Kleyn has been included because of the physicality he brings in and around the contact area, and for the ballast he will provide in the Irish scrum. It’s a tactical selection decision made in regard to a player who has fulfilled World Rugby’s eligibility criteria. And before we jump on those criteria and insist they are not stringent enough, let’s make sure that as a sport we are not cutting off our nose to spite our face.
Rugby is played to an elite standard by a very small group of nations, many of whom have smaller populations and don’t necessarily have the player pools to consistently pump out the physical freaks that modern rugby is so reliant upon. If, for economic or job opportunity reasons, a player ends up moving to a country like Ireland or Scotland and their eventual eligibility helps ensure the competitive nature of that side at the international level, should we really be so annoyed by that?
Fixture fatigue is something rugby has to deal with, thanks to there only being ten tier one nations constantly playing one another, so would it be the wisest thing to potentially lower the competitive nature of those contests by denying nations the services of players who have voluntarily chosen to make a new life for themselves in those countries?
The pathways in Tonga and Samoa have been struggling of late and without significant funding, which it is hard to generate on the islands, that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon. As a result, they have relied heavily on players born in New Zealand and Australia, but who qualify through ancestry. By making the concept of a ‘foreign-born’ player seem like a bad thing, you attempt to deny those two nations their best shot at being competitive at the tournament.
Japan leant heavily on players born outside of the country when they beat South Africa at the 2015 World Cup and the positives of that have continued to reverberate for years after the event. Success promotes a sport and it would not be surprising if we see a swell in Japanese kids playing rugby in the coming years that can be traced back to that moment.
The countries who rank towards the bottom of the ‘foreign-born-player list’, such as Argentina, Uruguay, Namibia (all 0), South Africa and Georgia (both 1), are generally countries where natural immigration is less of a factor. That could be for economic reasons or that professional rugby doesn’t offer the same sort of opportunities there that it might do in Europe or in Australasia and Japan, specifically for players from the Pacific Islands.
It is great that those countries have a production line of players that have come through their own system, but to make it a flag-waving exercise as the ‘right’ way of doing things shows a lack of understanding for the realities of life outside of the 80 minutes on a rugby pitch.
South Africans aren’t signed by the RFU, FFR or JRU, but they will often move for a better quality of life and financial security at a club. Their ability to become English, French or Japanese qualified allows them to meet with quotas that are part of the fabric of any successful club-country partnership and thus more proficiently provide for their families. Whether those countries’ domestic sides rely too much on foreign recruitment and not enough on their own development pathways is another conversation.
There will always be exceptions to the rule, cases where a player may qualify in order to pick up the extra income that match fees provide or who may then swiftly move to another country following the completion of their residency, but for the vast majority, there is a clear and definite commitment to represent the jersey and everything that entails. Their experiences doing so shouldn’t be diminished or belittled because another person’s understanding of the complexities of nationality aren’t nuanced enough.
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We don’t live in a world of black and white and to try and reduce eligibility in rugby to something as simple as that is only going to cause more problems than it solves. Rules exist and are followed uniformly by all nations.
If you feel a three-year residency period is not enough, as has been observed by all players at this upcoming World Cup who qualify on residency, then you can be sated by the knowledge that the mark has now switched to five years. Both are arbitrary figures, as it is impossible to gauge how long it takes to for any individual to assimilate into a new culture, although for those who fear the short-term nature of the three-year stint, any decision to move and eventually represent a new nation is now a longer-term one.
If Kleyn helps Ireland win a World Cup, what is his net contribution to Irish rugby? Is he still seen by some as detrimental to it when flocks of Irish kids would be picking up a rugby ball, rather than a football or a hurl?
What if the Tongan-born players in the Japan side help them to another unlikely victory and the legacy of this World Cup in the country sees the sport move on to a different level, eventually joining the likes of England and France as a big economy for World Rugby to lean on? When that money can be invested into the likes of Samoa and Tonga, will it be worth being thankful for the migration and eligibility of foreign-born players then?
We all want international rugby to be competitive and played to the highest possible standard. But as long as rugby remains a sport played in a small number of nations, a bit of player migration is hardly the worst thing in the world. Let’s just get on with enjoying the biggest spectacle the sport has to offer.