New Connacht signing Bundee Aki has openly declared his wish to one day, play for Ireland in the coming years. The Chiefs centre has no roots to Ireland, but after securing a three-year deal at the Sportsground, he hopes to don the Green shirt through the residency rule (currently meaning if you live in a nation for 3 years, you are eligible for their national team). This has caused much criticism with rugby fans, which poses the question whether the residency rule needs to be changed.
Aki is hardly the first to do so. England and New Zealand both have a huge crop of players from this rule (although they both try to pretend the other does it so much worse than they do!). Meanwhile, Scotland have scouting missions specifically to tie global players with no prior attachment to the nation so they can pick them via the residency rule. It happens over all the major top tier nations to different extents. The question is, why does this even matter?
Whilst you don’t want to begrudge the chance for a talented player to dazzle at the highest level, it is important to maintain a distinction between club and international rugby. The current residency rule format means countries can essentially make signings providing they have not previously been capped by another nation, by giving them a three year contract. If this continues to spread as an epidemic, then international rugby will become nothing but glorified club rugby. Club rugby also has its perks, but international rugby needs to continue to be a unique prospect with a different feel, and sense to club rugby.
But the residency rule could also be a hindrance for developing rugby nations around the world. This is because it allows players from minnow countries to be poached, and qualify for a top-tier nation after living there for 3 years. Without this, perhaps some of these poached players would have proudly paraded a national jersey of their own nation. Maybe then the likes of Tim Visser would have played, and boosted the Netherlands national side, as oppose to the top-tier Scots.
The issue is, whilst most in the rugby world agree that the residency rule needs to be changed, there does not seem to be a unanimous solution. Is the answer to scrap the residency rule totally as some suggest? No, because there are plenty of examples of people being born in one country, but being raised in another and having pride for that nation as a result.
I would suggest two measures to solve this issue. Firstly, make it 10 years a player has to be in a nation before they qualify for that country. 10 years is a long time, enough time to feel proud of that nation. It also allows players to play for the national side of a country they were raised in. Secondly, make the players of an under-20 national team tied down for that nation. That way, countries with a hotbed of talent (such as Zimbabwe) will not have their young prospects stolen by the top nations.
These measures would change the already illustrious international rugby game for the better. Not only would it secure the uniqueness of test matches from club matches, but it could also help minnow nations hold onto their talent.