Flow of South Seas talent must be two-way traffic
Players from the tier-two nations will continue to defect unless the eligibility rules change, writes Daniel Schofield
Could anyone begrudge Rokoduguni representing England after he served in Afghanistan?
In rugby circles, eligibility rules are less a can of worms than a vat of bobbits, the nightmare-inducing sea monsters that featured on Blue Planet II on Sunday.
The concept of nationality provokes strong reactions, particularly when a player shifts allegiances. The latest example came on Saturday, when Bundee Aki made his debut for Ireland against South Africa. Aki, who is of Polynesian descent, was born and raised in Auckland, but qualified for Ireland on the residency rule after spending three years with Connacht.
This was no freak set of circumstances. The Irish Rugby Football Union deliberately seeks out what are termed “project players”. Ireland are hardly alone. Hadleigh Parkes, another Kiwi, becomes eligible for Wales on Dec 2. England’s try-scorers against Argentina, Semesa Rokoduguni and Nathan Hughes, were both born in Fiji, while Australia featured no fewer than six foreignborn backs against Wales.
Many people will not be able to imagine why a player does not represent the country of his birth. But could anyone seriously begrudge Rokoduguni representing England after he completed a tour of Afghanistan? Or Manu Tuilagi, who came to England when he was 13?
There is an added complication in that the majority of people on the Pacific Islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga – who, alongside New Zealand, are the prime source of players for other nations – are proud of players such as Rokoduguni and Tuilagi representing England.
It is also worth remembering the poverty of these nations. Samoa scrum-half Melani Matavao recently revealed he earns about 45p a day. The £22,000 match fees that Rokodugni and Hughes earn for England are an opportunity to make a better life for themselves, their families and communities. Some players support up to 200 people back home.
Where there is anger within the Pacific Islands is that the tide of players flows only one way. Once a player is capped by another nation, he cannot come back. Former All Black Charles Piutau became ineligible for New Zealand when he moved to the northern hemisphere in 2015, but could still represent Tonga, like his brother Siale.
Many will say, good, he has made his bed and must lie in it, but Samoa and Tonga’s populations are about 197,000 and 107,000; roughly equivalent to Bournemouth and Scarborough. With such small playing bases, they cannot afford to lose players without getting anything in return.
Last year, a ruling was introduced in rugby league where players not selected for the tier-one nations – Australia, New Zealand and England
– are allowed to represent a developing country for which they are also eligible. It has had a stunning effect on the current World Cup, where New Zealand were defeated 28-22 by a Tongan side featuring several former New Zealand players.
World Rugby would do well to adopt a similar policy, although there should be a suitable stand-down period. To its credit, it will extend the residency rule from three to five years from 2020 with a view to clamping down on the harvesting of project players.
Yet this could merely encourage clubs and countries to recruit players even younger. Clermont Auvergne have set up an academy in Fiji. Until there is a change in the economic reality on the Pacific Islands, there will be no stopping Polynesians representing other countries; World Rugby should at least allow some of that talent to filter back.
Proud of the shirt: Semesa Rokoduguni, born in Fiji, is a serving British soldier