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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Final Whistle -

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

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