7th February 2018
The 2018 Six Nations Championship began on Saturday with comfortable wins for Wales and England over Scotland and Italy, respectively, and a dramatic last-minute victory for Ireland in Paris. Over the next six weeks, there will be the familiar annual cocktail of drama, skill, hype, excitement and frustration for the supporters of the national teams.
One issue that had interested me for some time is the composition of those “national” sides. A couple of statistics. For last weekend’s matches, 20 out of the 90 players in the six starting XVs were not born in the country they were representing. The same applied to 13 of the 48 players on the replacement benches. This meant that 33 out of the 138 players – 24% – were born outside their country’s borders. (The same applied to 4 of the 6 head coaches). For 5 of the countries, the foreign births accounted for either 4 or 5 of the 23-man match-day squads; in the case of Scotland, the figure was 10, including 8 of the starting XV.
Of course, the circumstances surrounding the players’ places of birth will have varied considerably and, for this reason, it must be emphasised that this is a very crude measure of national “attachment”.
In many cases, the strength of the players’ national and cultural identification cannot be in any doubt. For some, the place of birth simply reflects the (temporary) employment of one or both parents. For others, it was the family’s location prior to the player’s migration and full assimilation into his new environment. Hence, for example, Ross Moriarty of Wales was born on Merseyside at the time that his father, Paul (himself previously capped on 21 occasions by Wales), was playing professional rugby league for Widnes; George Biagi of Italy was born in Scotland to a Scots/Italian father and Scottish mother and went to school in Scotland, but attended university in Italy and stayed on in that country to play his first club rugby.
However, there are also other factors at play – and, as discussed below, it is some of these that have recently come under scrutiny, not least from World Rugby, rugby union’s world governing body.
(As an aside, I shall simply note in passing that the qualifications issue is one that has also exercised the minds of the followers of other sports – both team and individual – for some time, ranging from the Ireland football team and the England cricket side to the East African-born middle-distance runners representing Middle Eastern countries).
The current eligibility criteria for playing international rugby union (apart from ability) are based on either the place of birth of the player (or his parent or grandparent) or a residency qualification of three years.
To some extent, the impact on eligibility of the residency qualification is linked to straightforward market forces. The Australian and New Zealand rugby unions have long benefited from the higher overall living standards that their countries offer to promising rugby players from the PacificIslands. Similarly, in those cases where the visa requirements can be met, the wealth of English and French rugby clubs constitutes a powerful magnet to players from overseas. A prime example here is the case of the Auckland-born Denny Solomona, part of whose 3-year qualification period for England (it has turned out in retrospect) was spent playing rugby league for Castleford prior to his switch of codes with Sale; he was selected for the England rugby union side last year as soon as he was eligible.
Some countries have attempted to work within the existing rules to offset the advantages of size and wealth that the larger rugby-playing countries possess. Two complementary strategies have been followed. The first has been to spend resources systematically identifying young talented rugby players in other countries who would be eligible for selection via the parent or grandparent route. In Scotland – to give one example – an upgraded Scottish Qualified Programme was launched last autumn with agents in the rest of the UK, Europe, Japan, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Second, when the ancestral route is absent, there is the option to identify so-called “project players” to qualify on residency. These players are offered contracts with regional professional sides in the hope or expectation that they will graduate to international level at the 3-year mark. It is noticeable that media discussions of overseas-born players in the Irish and Scottish professional teams often include reference to the countdown to their international eligibility.
At this point, the question should be asked: does any of this matter? After all, the rules are the same for everyone.
In my view, the main danger does not lie with the likely attitude of the players. There is no reason to view the on-field commitment to their respective causes of the 24% (as calculated above) to be any different to the other 76% representing their countries.
Rather, the potential risk is to the credibility of international rugby – and therefore to its status as a source of spectator interest and identification. At what point does the proportion of players born outside the country mean that it is not really the “national” team that is being represented? If one-in-four is roughly the currently starting point, is it two-in-four or three-in four, or what? At what stage does the England versus Scotland Calcutta Cup match cease to be the sport’s equivalent of an England/Scotland soccer match and become analogous to the old-style Football League versus Scottish League contests? The latter were representative matches, whose teams were drawn from those (in theory of all nationalities) playing in England and Scotland, irrespective of their places of birth. The fixture dated from 1892, but was discontinued due to lack of spectator interest (and club support) in 1976.
The issues surrounding international rugby player eligibility have been debated for some time. (I note, in particular, an excellent article by Sarah Mockford – “How rugby’s eligibility rules must change” – in the August 2015 edition of Rugby World). And World Rugby has responded. In May 2017, it announced that the residency qualification period for international players would be extended from three to five years from the end of 2020, thus ensuring that players have a “genuine, close, credible and established link with the nation of representation”. The same theme was picked up by the WR chairman, Bill Beaumont: the reform is an “important and necessary step to protecting the integrity and credibility of international rugby”.
The change from three to five years is a significant one: it is a long time for someone to commit to a new country and develop their career in the hope of making an international squad other than that of the country in which they were born. It will also represent an increased financial commitment by the home union on those marquee players that have been identified.
However, it will also have the effect of raising the importance of the parent/grandparent route as a means of identifying potential talent. (Those involved with the Scottish Qualified Programme can expect an increased pressure to deliver results). On this point, my view is that the grandparent criterion should be abolished and that only the parental link should be retained. For many players, it must be difficult to justify an emotional or cultural link with an ancestor who was born perhaps 80 years earlier and whom they might not have even met.
In the meantime, the 2018 Six Nations bandwagon moves on – this weekend to Dublin, Twickenham and Murrayfield.