Rugby Eligibility Discussion Not Based on Fact or Agreed Process

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Rugby Eligibility
Belfast , United Kingdom - 28 October 2017; A dejected Charles Piutau of Ulster following the Guinness PRO14 Round 7 match between Ulster and Leinster at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. (Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Conversation recently has seen attention focused on Rugby Eligibility. That is in regards to some International player eligibility intentions; for those whom had represented one International team, but who might now desire to play for another.

Often these have been reported on widely, some including interviews and comments by some leading players. Social media has played a large part in spreading the positive message, with many accepting that Tier Two nations would surely benefit if World Rugby had indeed made strides to consider change.

Yes, Last Word on Rugby are pleased they’ve made that intention… let’s talk rugby eligibility.

The World Rugby laws are clear. Ambiguity over the process only needs to be considered in regards to players who have represented an International country already. The regulations state:

A Player who has played for the senior fifteen-a-side (XV) National
Representative Team or the next senior XV National rep team or the                senior National rep Sevens Team of a Union is not eligible to play for                    the senior XV National rep Team or the next senior XV National rep
team or the senior National rep Sevens Team of another Union.

Those are the facts. Be called onto the field in a Test match, or a development/B side or be substituted into a Sevens match and you are attached to that Union. Forever.

No opportunity to play for either a team of the country you reside in, or a XV’s team of either a Tier One or Two nations development side.

However the recent discussions have seen assumptions made that former players can decide to change their allegiance. Some who had played for, and now officially stopped representing one, could add value to another team.

They might well even be the best qualified and performing player–but importantly [and not widely enough stated] there have been no changes to rugby eligibility.

Conjecture Aside, Players Cannot Yet ‘Make Their Own Choices’

Conjecture believes that either after a stand-down period, or if the player makes a new pledge for another nation of their choice – with Charles Piutau being widely supposed to want to now play for his families native Tonga – but no official changes have been made.

In late November, Tonga coach Toutai Kefu said the former Tonga Under 20’s representative was keen and would add real quality. “I’ve spoken to him a few times and his brother as well – he’s very determined to play for Tonga so we’re very happy about that.”

That statement created plenty of media interest, creating a dialogue. Other names were mentioned; like Steffon Armitage and Ma’a Nonu. Some who had played in Under 20 competitions too have either qualified, or were deemed to not qualify – Brad Barritt, Gareth Anscombe and Steve Shingler.

The implications and discussion might well have previously involved rugby nations, global development conferences, and World Rugby are known to have considered the option.

But critically at this time; even in the face of widespread acceptance on social media, regulation 8.2 still applies.

The conversation was driven [in part] by the recent Rugby League World Cup, where new policy in fact allowed players to switch which country they might represent. And then figures like Matt Giteau and others posted support that it might transfer to rugby union – and the groundswell began.

Popular Support Can Promote Change

And in many ways, popular support is needed to promote change. But the only alterations to the rugby eligibility were related to changes made for the 2016 Olympic Games. That rule change meant after an International stand down of three years, a player who held citizenship for another nation may then look to be selected to represent the national sevens team in four World Rugby sevens tournaments.

In that way, they could then become able to fully represent another nation ‘at the Olympic Games’. So a player like Tim Nanai-Williams; who had played for the New Zealand sevens team, complied through a stand down (also, not being re-selected for the All Black Sevens). Being a citizen of Samoa, he played in several tournaments before qualifying.

Nanai-Williams wore the blue shirt of Samoa with pride in Buenos Aires. Subsequently, he was selected for the Manu Samoa XV’s team. A benefit to the player, who is still a confident Super Rugby player. So he added value to the national team, after meeting all the stipulations.

But in all reality, the difficulties that players/administrators/agents find is representative of the underling issues. After playing for one nation, a player “cannot always get what they want”.

Rugby Eligibility Respects the Established Agreements

All the while that certain player names are suggested, or countries whom might benefit from some changes supposed, the Rugby Eligibility discussion might not be based entirely on fact.

Established agreements that have been in place for many man years, cannot just change due to a few who might want to play for a new jersey. That could see battle lines drawn – English players qualifying to play for Celtic sides, and the professional and personal conflict it might create. There has always been conjecture since the ‘Grannygate’ scandals that affected Welsh rugby.

These all applied to players who met the criteria of regulation 8.2. The same discussion does not apply for non-residents who complete the term of residency to then play for another country (not of their birth). Family and residency are different conversations.

The built-up discussion seems to not have described the current, and agreed process for test-capped players. This might well be called ‘fake news’ in Washington DC, and Last Word on Rugby believe it should be clarified for general consumption.

Rugby Eligibility Discussion Not Based on Fact or Agreed Process

Firstly, public announcements from World Rugby have been widely broadcast.

Secondly, the recent reporting that certain players might be ‘opting to’ change their national allegiance seems to have reflected recent actions by league players. Jason Taumalolo is the most widely reported league player who did this. He took advantage of leagues variable rules, and made a last minute call to play for Tonga. After 10 caps for the Kiwis, he would represent Tonga.

And Tonga would benefit greatly from Taumalolo’s decision. Along with other players who played for Lebanon, Scotland and others. They certainly strengthened the Pacific teams capabilities, and with that professional component, the PI team toppled a poor New Zealand league team at a RLWC event [which the home side were hosting].

The benefit was clear at the RLWC. So why couldn’t it transfer to rugby union?

Obviously if Ma’a Nonu or Victor Vito were free to represent teams where their ancestry allowed, it would benefit Tier Two rugby. But critically, why stop at T2 nations–Steffon Armitage could decide to play for France–and so the arguments begin. Politics and long term rivalries are then considered. So positives that the rugby public have, are not the sole consideration.

The benefits are then secondary, and for all purposes, why the regulations have not been changes. All the social media positive vibes are fine, but until World Rugby make those changes, it is all hearsay.

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