Rugby’s Identity Crisis

Last week, a player made his debut for the Wales rugby team against South Africa. His name is Hadleigh Parkes. Hadleigh 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 who is a Kiwi through and through along with wing Denny Solomona, Auckland born and bred but who actually represented Samoa at Rugby League. The sight of various members of the international brigade down the years ranging from Lesley Vainikolo to Mouritz Botha wearing the red rose should be embarrassing for the richest rugby nation on earth, especially as many of them could hardly be described as world class! New Zealand have a strong tradition of grabbing talented Pacific Island players by tempting them away with the allure of an All Blacks cap, with Australia and France also doing some significant poaching in the last few years. South African CJ Stander 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 in what was an brazen attempt at recruiting foreigners for their national team. In short however, no major country is guiltless.

Wales have had their fair share of controversy both recently and historically, most notably the Grannygate scandal which erupted in 2000. New Zealanders Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson both played for Wales on the basis that they had a Welsh grandparent but it was later revealed that this was false. It also used to be the case that players could represent more than one nation. Howarth did so, turning out for New Zealand before Wales. Others include Stephen Bachop who played for Samoa then the All Blacks before switching back again, and his brother Graeme who also played for New Zealand but then went on to represent Japan at the 1999 World Cup.

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 legendary 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 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.

Opposition to lax residency rules is not really a judgement on the individual players themselves. Most professional players will want to play at the highest possible level and will want to do as well as they can financially. Parkes is a clear example of this – despite his obvious qualities he is not anywhere near good enough to play for the All Blacks, so made his way to the Scarlets and has become a key member of their squad earning good money. The chance to play international rugby has arisen with all the benefits that ensue (including a possible appearance at the 2019 World Cup) and one cannot blame him for taking his chance. In other words – don’t hate the player, hate the game.

International coaches must also work within this framework they are given, and it is somewhat understandable that they would want to pick a quality foreigner if they are qualified. For them, picking a decent foreigner who has been in their country for three years is often easier than developing and playing younger, less polished players. Against South Africa for example, Parkes took the place of Bridgend product Owen Watkin who had started against Georgia a fortnight before and the young Osprey had to make do with warming the bench. How can it be right that someone who has dreamed of playing for Wales since their early years is bumped down the pecking order for an ageing Kiwi?

Whilst this change is incremental, it is welcome although it has been a long time coming. Former Wales head coach Graham Henry who started that job in 1998 planned to go 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 and play club rugby for three years, then becoming eligible for the national team. Thankfully this enterprise failed to get off the ground on that occasion, but as has been demonstrated it has been attempted in various guises by several nations.

Significantly more stringent rules are required around qualification for national teams, and despite the globalised nature of the world we live in there are measures that can be put in place whereby players can show both allegiance to a nation as well as accounting for the complexity of migration and the movement of families. The residency period should be extended to seven years which shows a real commitment to a country and for example covers the period from the beginning of secondary education to adulthood. Furthermore, the grandparent rule should be scrapped as it is too tenuous, and replaced by a parental-birth stipulation combined with a residency period of three years. The likelihood of these reforms coming into the game are frankly small as there are too many vested interests who do very well out of the current system, however I am sure that it would make the international game more serious and bring the sport back to its roots which is even more important in the age of “Galactico” club teams such as Toulon who look like a United Nations XV. Everyone knows about the current potential of Pacific Island nations in particular, but just imagine how good they could be if more stringent residency rules were adopted and they were able to retain the world-class players that have deserted them for other nations. It would make international rugby much more competitive and appealing to the public, as well as simply being fair.

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