This past weekend, a player made his debut for the Wales rugby team against South Africa, and his name is Hadleigh Parkes. Parkes is a Kiwi through and through – born in Hunterville, schooled in Palmerston North and attended university in Canterbury. He has no connection to Wales whatsoever, not even having the loose connection of a Welsh grandparent. His qualification for Wales? Playing in the country for three years.
It is a problem that affects all corners of the rugby world. England, which has the most adult players in the world, has been notorious for selecting players via the residency method. There are several current squad members who are foreigners, including captain Dylan Hartley and wing Denny Solomona who are Kiwis through and through, and the sight of various members of the international brigade ranging from Lesley Vainikolo to Mouritz Botha should be embarrassing for the richest rugby nation on earth. New Zealand have a strong tradition of grabbing talented Pacific Island players, tempting them away with the allure of an All Blacks cap with Australia and France also doing some significant poaching in the last couple of years. South African CJ Stander originally moved to Ireland under the banner of a “project player”, meaning his three-year contract with Munster would not count towards the provinces’ limit of foreign-players as Stander would eventually become Irish qualified.
The farcical residency situation has not gone unnoticed. World Rugby, the sport’s governing body, have sprung into action and extended the residency period from three to five years, effective 31st December 2020.
The reform was driven by World Rugby vice-chairman and former Argentina scrum-half Agustín Pichot, who commented on the original passing of the measure “National team representation is the reward for devoting your career and your rugby life to your nation. These amendments will ensure that the international arena is full of players devoted to their nation, who got there on merit.”
As Pichot alludes to, one of the reasons international sport is special and different from the club version is that it’s a very natural, and based on culture, history and tradition. You’re not able to spend vast amounts of money assembling a squad in pursuit of glory, rather you play the hand your dealt, and representing the national side is the pinnacle for players in a particular country.
Whilst this change is rather small and incremental, it is certainly welcome despite being a long time coming. Former Wales head coach Graham Henry who started that job in 1998 planned to down the path of “project players”, whereby the Welsh Rugby Union would pick young, talented southern hemisphere players who would then be flown to Wales, play club rugby for three years and then become eligible for the national team. Thankfully this enterprise failed to get off the ground on that occasion, and it was one of several reasons Henry struggled as Wales head coach as it betrayed a lack of commitment to Wales as a country and the beauty of international sport.
There is more to life than winning, and I would rather lose a match with fifteen proud Welshmen rather than an international mish-mash of mercenaries and southern hemisphere failures.