Boots and all

IRB must quickly tackle Olympic eligibility rule

The IOC requires players to hold passports of the countries they represent and several teams may be weakened by this rule

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 12:17am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 1:50am

The International Rugby Board must be lauded for giving countries plenty of chances to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, but one major question remains unanswered - who is eligible to play?

With next season's IRB Sevens World Series being part of the Olympic qualifiers, will teams only be able to field players who have the passport of the country they wish to represent per International Olympic Committee rules?

Or will the IRB's more relaxed three-year eligibility rule still be the rule of thumb, at least until teams get to Rio?

If Hong Kong are to play in three or four legs with a team under IOC eligibility guidelines, it would be a difficult task

Even New Zealand sevens supremo Gordon Tietjens was taken aback when these questions were posed to him. He admitted he hadn't given it any thought and said the All Blacks Sevens might be affected with a couple of players holding Fijian passports.

Let's hope the IRB has given this serious thought. But the most obvious answer would be if it is an Olympic qualifier, one would expect teams to only field players who have a passport.

As far as Hong Kong is concerned, it will be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if the passport-only rule is enforced, it could see arch-rivals Japan unable to field their legion of Pacific islanders - they have five in the team who will run out today. Yet, at the same time we have a number of players without SAR passports.

When the IRB announced the qualifying process last month, the first reaction from the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union was the best path to the Olympics would be through "Asia" - winning the regional qualifiers.

Let's back-track a bit and explain how the 12 men's teams to Rio 2016 will be unearthed. Brazil as hosts gain an automatic spot. The remaining 11 berths will be filled by the top four nations from next season's IRB Sevens World Series, the winners from each of the six IRB regional competitions, and one from a world play-off.

If the World Series standings were taken into account, that would mean South Africa, New Zealand, Fiji and England (Britain) would book Olympic berths.

"Our best route obviously would be to win the Asian Sevens Series next year," was the take at the time from Dai Rees, Hong Kong Rugby Football Union's head of technical development and performance.

"To make it through the world repechage will be tougher, with the likelihood that a number of core teams from the World Series will be taking part in the competition."

But looking more closely, if Hong Kong are to play in three or four legs with a team under IOC eligibility guidelines, it would be a difficult task.

Some of our best players who are IOC-eligible are not even in the squad this weekend, players such as Mark Wright, Keith Robertson and Anthony Haynes.

Wright wasn't picked but plays rugby in Japan, Robertson is a pilot and Haynes has started his own business. Will they be available for a three- or four-tournament campaign to qualify for the Olympics?

Wouldn't it be better to have a one-off event so resources could be concentrated, as was the case in the Asian qualifiers for the 2013 Sevens World Cup in Singapore in 2012?

From the current squad, Nick Hewson, Ben Rimene and Lee Jones don't have SAR passports, nor Raef Morrison and Max Woodward, but the latter two have applied. Whether they get it is another question.

Hong Kong are facing this same problem for September's Asian Games, which will fall into line with IOC eligibility requirements.

But the Hong Kong Olympic Committee has offered to step in and ask for dispensation from the Olympic Council of Asia so players who have a Hong Kong ID card (Hewson and company) or those who were born here (Morrison and Woodward) but still hold foreign passports, can play.

Whether local officials will carry the torch for the Olympic qualifiers is another matter.

Becoming part of the Olympic Games has its pitfalls and it will be interesting to see what the IRB does. With the World Series being part of the qualifying process, the logical move would be for IOC passport-only rules to apply. It would not make sense fielding ineligible players to qualify and then only take those who have passports to Rio.

With the next World Series set to start in a few months, this complex issue must be resolved soon.