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'I am the only person who has ever done it, which is a shame'

By Liam Heagney

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Tabai Matson, the former dual country international player for Fiji and the All Blacks during the 1990s, has welcomed the game-changing decision by World Rugby to change its Test game eligibility regulations and re-open up the possibility for players to change their national team allegiance. 

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A decision taken on Wednesday at the latest World Rugby council meeting will now permit an international player to transfer once from one union to another subject to demonstrating a close and credible link to that union via birthright. Each case will be subject to approval by the World Rugby regulations committee to preserve the integrity.

Having represented the All Blacks in ten non-cap matches in 1995 and 1996, including tours to Europe and South Africa, the Fijian-born Matson was able to transfer and twice play for the country of his birth in the lead-up to the 1999 World Cup where he went on to be a non-playing member of the squad at those finals. 

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Now 48 and head coach at Harlequins having coached Fiji as an assistant at the 2015 World Cup, Matson is delighted that the Pacific Island nations, in particular, can potentially pick up additional players despite getting capped elsewhere previously. For example, the Fijian-born Sevu Reece could now possibly play for the country of his birth three years after his last cap for the All Blacks.

“I played for Fiji and the All Blacks and I am the only person who has ever done it, which is a shame in my opinion,” said Matson at his weekly Harlequins media briefing ahead of their Gallagher Premiership game this Saturday at home to London Irish. 

“For those of us who were fringe All Blacks or fringe internationals in any game, the ability to play for the country you were born in is priceless. I hold my couple of games for Fiji as highly as I held my New Zealand games. Being a proud Fijian and a proud Kiwi, they are not mutually exclusive so to be able to represent both countries that you hold dear and you have an affinity with is a reasonable ask. I haven’t really dug into the laws around how the transfer would happen but for the benefit of world rugby, it is a positive move. Clearly, I have got a history with that.”

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This loosening of the eligibility regulations, however, might have the negative effect of some clubs being hesitant about signing a player whose Test career appears to be over but who can now potentially become eligible for his birth country. 

“It’s an interesting one,” admitted Matson. “You always recruit with the information that is right in front of you and try not to overthink too much if someone is dual eligible and might be at risk later on. I still feel that any of our players that go off to represent another nation makes the club proud, but it clearly complicates it if you have a whole stack of them. 

“Someone like Ben Tapuai is a perfect example of a guy who I recruited to Bath because of that, a former international (with Australia), a really high-level player. I knew that he wasn’t going to be eligible to play for anybody else and he was going to be really valuable in somewhere like the Premiership so that is a consideration for a coach for sure.   

“Like any conversation, if there is transparency and you are upfront with everything, of course (it should be okay to play Test rugby). One of the first conversations I have with players is where do you want to be in three years and if you still want to be playing for Fiji in another World Cup then you will find that out very quickly if you ask the right question. I don’t think it is a problem if you see the long term view of the player in mind.”

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'I am the only person who has ever done it, which is a shame'

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