World Rugby eligibility should be staggered so players who want to give all their best rugby to an adopted country can
- Too many players are swapping international countries and it is devaluing the whole idea of playing for your country
- World Rugby should introduce a staggered system so players do not wait to see if they are good enough for their own country before swapping
Rugby players can represent a country after spending three years living there no matter their affiliations. So, players who can see that they have no chance of making the cut in their own nation move to ‘lesser’ nations to win international caps.
As of 2020, it will increase to five years to protect the integrity of international honours.
Some countries, Scotland and Ireland most notably, even have their clubs sign foreign “project players” on three year deals with the expressed intention of picking them for the national team in three years time.
Sam Johnson was recently picked for Scotland’s November tests but calls himself a “proud Australian”. He was signed by Glasgow and thought he would keep the dream of professional rugby going for a couple more years, but then hit a rich vein of form and now finds himself in the Scotland jersey.
WP Nel, a South African playing for Scotland and one of the project players, awkwardly answered questions about bagpipes at the 2015 World Cup. A journalist asked Nel his opinion on bagpipes “as a Scotsman” and even asked if he played the bagpipes. Nel laughed uncomfortably.
CJ Stander, the South African, plays for Ireland, another project player.
I’m sure, all of those players would have jumped at the opportunity to play for their home nations had they been given the chance. And that is why three years is too short, but still, five years is a long time and not all moves are the same.
Instead of five years, World Rugby should introduce a staggered system. If you want to play for another country you should give all of your best years to them.
If you move to a new country under the age of 20, then it should be a three-year period. If you move under 25, a five-year period. And if you move over 25, a seven-year period.
That way, players will not try their hardest to play for their own country and when it becomes clear they won’t get picked, they move in their mid-20s and hold out for a short international career starting in their late 20s.
If you want to give up your shot of playing for the All Blacks or Springboks at the age of 19 and then give all of your best years to your nation of choice, with a long career starting at 22 years old, then more power to you and your adopted nationality. Hence the staggered system.
But maybe you have grown up dreaming of playing for the All Blacks. But you have given everything you can to New Zealand and not made the cut aged 24. Then you move to Scotland having never even visited before, to get 30 caps after the age of 29 at the expense of a local player who has grown up dreaming of pulling on the Scottish thistle. That devalues international honours.
There is a difference between the two moves and a different effect on the rugby of the adopted nation, and a staggered system would recognise that.
The only issue with the staggered suggestion is smaller nations have smaller player pools. The reason Scotland and Ireland have had project players, and not England or France, is because the latter two have infinity bigger pools to pick from.
Even further down the list, to the likes of Hong Kong, a blanket five-year period or even a staggered system would cripple their international team that relies heavily on expats.
World Rugby should consider a two-tier system where the tier one nations have a staggered rule (or the five year) and the likes of Hong Kong continue to operate on a three-year system.
With a blanket five years across both levels of rugby playing nations, the gulf between tier one and two will only grow.