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'Not fair and consistent' - change to rugby eligibility laws needed

By Tom Raine
Wasps could sorely do with Malakai Fekitoa and Lima Sopoaga rediscovering their Highlanders form and chemistry. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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The effect of Tongan captain Sonatane Takulua’s post-match interview has certainly been noteworthy. In openly discussing the issues facing his side, Takulua brought awareness to a range of difficult realities present in rugby union today. One such topic – the eligibility laws currently within the game.

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Such laws are indeed wide-ranging in the impact they have upon players, nations and fans and can also prove controversial given the differing opinions and views surrounding them.

Joining the discourse in light of Takulua’s words were the Aotearoa Rugby Pod panel this week, with Maori All Blacks halfback Bryn Hall and ex-All Blacks hooker James Parsons providing their thoughts on the matter.

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Ross Karl, James Parsons and Bryn Hall discuss all the action from around the world of rugby on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
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Ross Karl, James Parsons and Bryn Hall discuss all the action from around the world of rugby on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“I think definitely it’s an area that needs to be looked at,” said Parsons. “It was evident how the Tongan team were affected by it … and I think there’s a growing voice for [change]. I think there has been in the past, but there’s a genuine want now, looking for example at Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua coming into Super Rugby, to improve the opportunities for success in Pasifika rugby.”

In April of this year it was announced by New Zealand Rugby that both Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua had been granted conditional licences to join an expanded Super Rugby competition in 2022. Final negotiations appear to be ongoing with Rugby Australia, and as of yet, no details have been confirmed as to what the 2022 competition will look like.

Moana Pasifika general manager Kevin Senio also revealed that 80% of the team’s players must declare for Tonga and Samoa in order to play. It is hoped that through securing top talent at franchise level, greater autonomy and stability will be provided to the respective unions in picking their international sides.

Relatedly, Parsons went on to discuss how to allow for players who, having already represented one nation at international level, subsequently seek to switch their allegiance to play for another country.

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“There needs to be [a system] where you can potentially get guys who have represented other nations to make one [international] and purposeful change in their careers,” said Parsons. “There’s got to be something that allows a person who wants to change allegiance to do so, and that might simply involve a six-month stand-down or a year’s stand-down before they can then go and represent that country. You might need to have been born there or your family might need to have been born there. [Potentially also, a system] not just [for those going from] tier-one to tier-two. I think there might be people out there that want to go from tier-two to tier-one. It’s got to be consistent.”

Parsons’ view on the implementation of a stand-down period alone as a means of switching is shared by CEO of Pacific Rugby Players Welfare Dan Leo, regarding the method as a simpler and perhaps more inclusive means of changing one’s allegiance. The current rules require a player to have been out of test rugby for a minimum of three years, to hold a passport for their second country and to participate in an Olympic rugby sevens qualifying tournament before they are eligible for that ‘new’ nation at all levels. Whilst not an impossible path to follow, club commitments might nonetheless serve to prevent this route being undertaken, as Charles Piutau recently found out.

“They need to come up with a plan that is consistent,” continued Parsons. “I don’t think that the Olympics sevens as an avenue is right at the moment, because think of a front rower as an example, they’re largely not going to be able to play sevens, so [for them] there is no avenue back that way. That’s the only avenue, so it’s not fair and consistent.”

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Both Parsons and Hall looked to the rugby league model as a positive example of what can emerge from a change in eligibility laws.

“If you use Tongan rugby league as an example,” commented Parsons, “as a fan, [the eligibility rules] made me more interested in international rugby league. That Jason Taumalolo and all those players made the move to represent Tonga and we saw them beat the Aussies and challenge the Kiwis … it really does make you interested in international rugby league again. There’s more competition there. So, if we can do that in our game and make it really strong worldwide through an avenue like this, why not?”

Hall too highlighted the benefits for fans and players alike that could come from eligibility changes. “We want our game to grow, we want the best players in the world to be able to play international rugby. You look at the likes of Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua, guys that are still playing great rugby but have obviously played for the All Blacks … and haven’t played here for a long period of time – it would be great to be able to see them pull on their nation’s colors without them having to go through the sevens circuit to play.”

Fans of the game would likely not disagree with Hall’s logic – after all, who wouldn’t want to see the best players in the world be able to compete at a World Cup?

“I think it’s unfortunate that such a proud team like Tonga face so many barriers,” said Hall. “I think there needs to be some headway made by World Rugby and I think conversations are happening now more so now than they probably have in the past.”

Parsons echoed Hall’s views pointing out how recent progress and exposure has come through the actions of players in the game themselves.

“Guys like Charles Piutau, Malakai Fekitoa and George Moala all spoke out earlier in the year about wanting to do it and they’ve been quite strong in their views that it has got to change,” said Parsons. “They’ve brought a public voice to [the issue] and I do think there are conversations happening … People that make the decisions will be having those discussions as well. They’re not sitting there blind to the issues and what potential problems there are, that’s probably why it’s drawn out. It’s about when you do it, getting it right.”

Certainly, as shown by the likes of Fine Inisi and Luatangi Li on Saturday evening, pride in one’s national jersey continues to hold a special place in rugby.

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'Not fair and consistent' - change to rugby eligibility laws needed

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