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McGuigan becomes latest international to switch countries

By Chris Jones
Byron McGuigan of Sale Sharks (Photo by Barrington Coombs/Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

Byron McGuigan is preparing for a 5,387 mile journey from Manchester to Windhoek that will transform the Sale Sharks wing from a Scotland international into a key member of Namibia’s squad at this year’s Rugby World Cup in France.

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McGuigan won 10 Scotland caps with the last coming in the 17-0 win against Italy on February 22, 2020, and if his plans come to fruition his World Cup debut for Namibia will be against Italy at St Etienne on September 9. Namibia are in Pool A at the World Cup alongside hosts France, New Zealand, Uruguay and the Italians.

McGuigan follows Bath wing Ruaridh McConnochie, capped by England, who has been named in Scotland’s Six Nations squad and has joined former Wallabies backrower Jack Dempsey who made his Scotland debut in the Autumn tests.

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Other high-profile players who have moved countries include the controversial Israel Folau, who made such an impact for the Wallabies, who is now part of the Tonga World Cup plans along with former All Blacks Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau and Vaea Fifita while ex-All Black Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen has added his talents to the Samoa squad with Bristol’s Steven Luatua set to follow suit.

McGuigan was born in Walvis Bay in South West Africa which is now Namibia and then moved with his family to Cape Town and thanks to the World Rugby eligibility rule change he is moving countries to continue his test career. The 33-year-old is making the trip to Windhoek on Saturday to collect his Namibian passport and meet up with the team’s management and coaches.

Under the World Rugby change, after a three-year stand-down period, a player can move to a nation of their birth or their parents’ or grandparents’ birth and can only switch allegiance once.

McGuigan’s mother’s family are from Glasgow and her parents moved to Namibia when she was six years old while his father was born in South Africa. McGuigan makes an annual trip to Southern Africa taking his own family to meet the relations living in Namibia and South Africa which makes this particular change of international jersey understandable given the end of his involvement with Scotland.

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McGuigan told RugbyPass: “This change came about through Chrysander Botha who I used to play with at Exeter Chiefs who is now part of Namibia’s coaching team. We were room mates at Exeter and got on really well. The law change on eligibility then happened and Josh Beaumont (Sale lock) told me about it and so I was in touch with Chrysander and this February is three years since I last played for Scotland.

“I am just making sure by going back to get my passport that all is well and I am up for selection for the World Cup. My last game for Scotland was against Italy and it would be special to play in the opening World Cup game for Namibia against Italy. My Mum is Scottish and I am very proud to have played for Scotland but I have very strong roots in Namibia and over the years the country has lost a lot of rugby talent with guys pursuing rugby opportunities in South Africa. I want to go back and help the country I was born in.

“I go back once a year to Namibia and South Africa because half my family is in Namibia with aunts and uncles and the other half in South Africa. I am flying to Namibia after Sale play Bath on Saturday to get my passport sorted out and Alex Sanderson (Sale director of rugby) has given me 10 days off to meet with the guys in Namibia which is great because he didn’t need to do that. Alex has come in and done a fantastic job at the club.

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“It has been quite nice having so many South African’s in the changing room at Sale and it is a bit like a home away from home and the culture is very different. The integration has been very good at the club and the South Africans have a great work attitude and the balance of the team is better.”

Namibia, known as the Welwitschias, have never won a match at the World Cup and the closest they came to a win at the tournament was in 2015 when they lost 16-17 to Georgia, at Sandy Park in Exeter.

McGuigan’s team mates will be targeting the match with Uruguay for the elusive first win at the tournament, however, the Sale wing takes issue with that assumption insisting that the opening game with an inconsistent Italy side is also on their radar as a potential victory. “My mindset is that I want to go there and add my knowledge and experience to the Namibia squad and get that first win.

“Namibia does have the talent and maybe they need a bit more knowledge because they are not going to the World Cup as underdogs – you go to the tournament to do a job and represent the country and do them proud. It is about trying to get the wins over Italy and Uruguay and while there are tough challenges with France and New Zealand, we just have to put our best foot forward in all the games.

“The World Cup is an opportunity for players to be in the international shop window and that is something we will talk about and we are not going there to make up the numbers. Big performances could open up opportunities for contracts in Europe – it has happened in the past.”

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McGuigan’s Scotland career included the remarkable 38-38 draw with England at Twickenham in 2019 when the Scots reached half time trailing 31-7 and looked set for a hammering. However, they turned the game on its head and it is that kind of attention-grabbing moment that McGuigan wants to achieve with Namibia. “I had a popped cartilage in the ribs in the game and to be part of that experience was fantastic,” he added. “We showed great character to hold onto the Calcutta Cup.

“While it was a great second half there was a feeling that we could have won it and they scored last. There was an element of we let it slip.”

McGuigan attended the small Milnerton High School in Cape Town and while it may lack the rugby pedigree of more famous institutions in the Cape, it has produced McGuigan, of Scotland and Damian de Allende, the World Cup winning Springbok centre and the pair remain good friends. “I used to play rugby and cricket with Damian and we remain good friends. Our school team broke through while we were there and it is a very small rugby school and our feeder schools only played football. I was playing centre when he broke into the first team in my final year and he came in as a wing but played 12 the following year and was outstanding. He was a big boy then! One of my Scotland jersey’s is up on the wall in the little room next to the rugby pitch.”

If all goes to plan, later this year McGuigan will be able to give them a Namibia World Cup 2023 jersey to hang on the wall.

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