It is 2019. What that means, is that it is a World Cup year. It also means that we live in an increasingly globalised world, in which the dividing lines between nationality are contested, blurred and complex.
Next year, World Rugby’s rule changes regarding the period of required residency necessary for international eligibility come into place, increasing it from three years to five. This is a widely welcomed change. Whilst questions of identity are complicated and personal, fans have a right to investigate why it is that a player chooses to play for their country.
The number of players competing for countries other than that of their birth is on the rise. In the 2018 Six Nations a total of 21 different nationalities were represented. This is not, in and of itself, problematic. Players with dual nationality, with parents from one country who grew up in another, have an irrefutable right to choose whom to represent.
What is problematic however, is the rise of what World Rugby has labelled ‘Project Players.’ It is these whom the rule changes have emerged in response to. Players like CJ Stander, who, whilst he has bought into the Irish rugby structure admirably, moved to Ireland after being told he was too small to play international rugby for South Africa. Or Bundee Aki, born in Auckland to Samoan parents, who moved to play for Connacht in his mid-twenties to find himself representing Ireland just three years later. The examples are endless: WP Nel, Hadleigh Parkes, Nathan Hughes and Michael Rhodes most recently.
The case of Gareth Anscombe is somewhat more complex, rather like that of Brad Shields. Whilst Anscombe is publicly proud of his Welsh heritage (his mother is Welsh), its seems bizarre that a player who finished the 2011 Junior World Cup as top points scorer for New Zealand, is now heralded as a hero of Welsh rugby. Brad Shields played in that same 2011 Junior World Cup Winning side. He, like Anscombe, qualifies for England through his parents. Surely this is ridiculous, and the question must be asked, would they be playing in the Six Nations had they received an All Blacks call up?
It must be recognised that these players dedicate themselves to representing their side with great pride and intensity, otherwise they would not be selected. Yet it is hard not to view these instances with cynicism. Are they not simply choosing to move to a country in order to play international rugby for whoever will take them, wherever they have a chance, and in doing so further their careers and exploit the financial rewards accordingly? It is hard to condemn individuals for, quite naturally, taking the opportunities open to them, but the ease with which players are able to do this, and the appetite governing bodies appear to have for exploiting such rules, undermines the integrity of the international game.
Unfortunately, former Samoan captain Dan Leo fears the imminent rule change will mean the player exodus from the Pacific Islands will simply occur at an earlier age. This observation is a damning indictment of the structural inequalities in World Rugby, and Leo’s sad realism captures many of the problems of the modern game. Pacific Islanders make up 20% of professional players, but the financial benefits appear not to be trickling down. In Autumn 2016, all four of France’s test wings who appeared against Australia were Fijian, a result of the financial draw of the Top 14.
World Rugby appears to have recognised the issue exists, it waits to be seen whether a two-year increase in the residency requirements will have the required impact. In a World Cup year however, it is impossible not to see the problem with greater clarity, for it threatens to cheapen and commodify international rugby, turning nations into simply jumped up professional clubs.
Written by Joe Ronan