THE recent decision by the International Rugby Board (IRB) to impose a three-year eligibility rule for players, smacks of just another way for the establishment to perpetuate their waning hold on the game. Instead of moving forward, the IRB has taken a retrograde step by bringing in the three-year residency rule, which effectively means that a developing Union, like Hong Kong, will be shackled. Keith Rowlands (if you are reading this), I hope you realise the enormity of the IRB's decision, which in one sweeping move will cripple progress across the world.
As I understand it, the IRB was worried that some Unions might go to the length of 'importing' players (a la the United Arab Emirates at the ICC Cricket Trophy last year) in a bid to qualify for important tournaments like the World Cup. While acknowledging the fact that here was an issue which had to be dealt with, it seems as if the IRB has over-reacted to the seriousness of the problem - calling for brain surgery to treat a headache.
In the long-term, it would be far better for the governing body of the game to see that rugby is propagated as far and wide as possible. According to one man who has been involved for a long time in propagating the game - George Simpkin - what the IRB has done is kill with one blow, whatever chance smaller Unions had, of ever improving the standards of their game, especially in the Asian area. Simpkin, the technical director of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, has been in the vanguard of developing the game here and across the border in China.
With the wisdom of six years of accumulated experience, Simpkin believes that the standard of rugby in Asia had been raised by the presence of expatriates. 'Surely the objective of the rugby authorities should be to have as many countries as possible competing realistically at the World Cup. But right now if you increased the World Cup to 24 teams, it would be farcical because there would be so many one-sided games,' says Simpkin.
The IRB's decision turns into a travesty when one considers that the three-year ruling is waived on grounds of 'birth and descent'. This means that if Jeremy Guscott had been born in Hong Kong, lived all his life in England, and suddenly decided that he wanted to play for Hong Kong, all he had to do was turn up and knock on the door of the local Union. Or if the Underwood brothers, Rory and Tony, suddenly decided that they wanted to play for Malaysia, they could do so, as their mother is Malaysian.
The above scenario will not happen as I'm sure the Underwood brothers and Guscott have long, fruitful careers ahead with England. But it is not implausible. In fact it is happening on the international scene. England's find of the season, fullback Mike Catt, was born and brought up in South Africa. But as he has an English mother, he is eligible to play for England. Just say that Peter Else, the secretary of the local Union, was good enough to be grabbed by an international team tomorrow. He could choose between three countries - Ireland (his grandmother was Irish), England (father and grandfather) and South Africa (where he was born).
Else says: 'There is no downside in this rule for the Home Unions. They benefit simply by the fact that they provided a large number of emigrants in the early part of this century.' Having ensured that their rugby will not be affected, the Home Unions who dominate the IRB council, have ignored the rest of the colonials. 'We were always on a hiding to nothing. The decision did not affect them,' said Else. Without realising it (or did they?), the IRB has placed a heavy tag around the development of the game worldwide - and rugby will pay for it.