Recruiting top talent across borders is under microscope at Rugby World Cup
If sport can ever be a microcosm of life, then the problem of human migration must certainly be one aspect.
The harrowing pictures of a dead child on a beach that went around the world last week are unlikely to ever be part of rugby union, but with the movement of people dominating the worldwide news agenda, it is no surprise that it is a massive issue in the background to the Rugby World Cup that starts on Friday.
The game in the northern hemisphere has more money than it does in the southern hemisphere, and numerous high-profile players will make their way from countries such as New Zealand and Australia to Europe and Japan following the World Cup.
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Dan Carter has already spent a sabbatical in Europe playing for Perpignan, and the leading points scorer of all time will become the world’s highest-paid player when he joins Racing Metro after the tournament. Australia players will turn out next season respectively for Harlequins and Bordeaux, while an issue of greater concern for the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) is teammate Bernard Foley’s decision to play in Japan after the World Cup at the age of 25.
Premiership teams in England will soon be allowed to sign a second ‘marquee’ player, and with France heavily targeting the Pacific Island youth, player migration is set to increase during the next few years.
With players such as Foley moving at the height of their powers, rather than as a retirement swansong, World Rugby believes it is time to look at international eligibility laws. Any player can qualify to play for a country on residency grounds after three years if he has not previously turned out for another country at senior level.
“The residency law was looked at a few years ago and it was determined that it seemed to be right for that particular time,” Brett Gosper, the World Rugby chief executive, has said.
“When the residency rule was set, there was not quite the same flow of players internationally through Europe and Japan.
“Bernard Lapasset (the World Rugby chairman) has indicated we may have to look at whether the three-year residency rule is enough to ensure the integrity of the international game.”
One only has to look at Pool A to see how different countries are trying to deal with a problem that is increasing with the fast pace of globalisation.
England employ total protectionism, Australia have tried to find a happy medium, while Fiji have just two players in their 31-man squad who reside on the Pacific island.
England coach Stuart Lancaster found himself in a difficult position in the lead-up to the World Cup, whereby out of political principle he refused to pick Steffon Armitage, the Toulon flanker, despite a clause existing that would allow him to include in his squad one of the best open-side flankers in the world.
The Rugby Football Union’s policy since the 2011 World Cup has been that coaches should pick only home‑based players in an effort to protect the national interest and the Premiership’s quality.
There is an “exceptional circumstances” clause, however, for a situation wherein if the coach has an injury crisis, he can select overseas-based players to fill the void.
For many, having Armitage’s extensive foraging skills for a once-in-a-generation home World Cup count as exceptional circumstances, with Australia set to field two fetchers in David Pocock and Michael Hooper at Twickenham against England on October 3.
In contrast, the ARU changed its eligibility laws in April to allow overseas-based players such as Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell to play at the World Cup.
Now players who have earned at least 60 Test caps and have previously held a contract with the ARU for at least seven years qualify.
It is a tactic, however, that does not prevent players such as Foley, who is set to perform a key role in this World Cup, from departing in their prime.
Wales set up a National Dual Contract structure last year in which coach Warren Gatland decides which 13 players in his squad are allotted funding that is split between the regional teams and the Welsh Rugby Union in an effort to prevent key player drain.
The long-term aim is to keep the core of the team in Wales. The late inclusion due to injury of Racing Metro’s Mike Philips means that Wales have nine players who ply their trade outside the country in their World Cup squad.
And then there is Fiji. At the inaugural World Cup in 1987, both Fiji and Tonga pledged to use only players resident on their respective islands. Much like England’s current clause, New Zealand-based Jimi Damu was drafted in after a raft of injuries. Samoa were not even invited and began to recruit their overseas-based players, with Tonga and Fiji following suit. By the 2003 tournament, only 15 players lived in Fiji, Tonga or Samoa of the 89 players from the Pacific Island teams with club affiliations.
Other than props Lee Roy Atalifo and Peni Ravai, who turn out respectively for Suva and Nadroga, Fiji coach John McKee has sourced his squad from the leagues of England, France, Scotland, Wales, Italy, New Zealand and Romania.
Fiji’s example highlights that the landscape could be very different for every team in 25 years, and while countries such as England now pursue a policy of border control, they may not be able to do so down the line.
Player migration is a product of an ever-shrinking world of increased opportunity, and until the southern hemisphere countries come up with a better way to keep its players at home, that movement will only increase.
Market forces dictate that there will be eventually an answer, but rugby needs to be part of the solution rather than being dictated to by how money talks and to where players walk.
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