They put their bodies on the line. They work harder for their country than for any other team. Nobody questions the fanatical commitment of international rugby players. But should they?
Gone are the days where your nation wasn’t a choice. Our world is undoubtedly made better by international travel, collaboration and emigration, but what are the rules on where they fit into rugby?
In recent years the new toy for coaches around the world has been ‘project players’. Stars who fly across the world to play club rugby in a new country and watch the clock until residency rules drop them into international rugby. If you comb through Europe’s top leagues you’ll find a treasure trove of hidden Southern Hemisphere talent with one eye on a three-year wait for the six nations.
Nobody is doubting that a player like CJ Stander is immensely talented, but is he immensely Irish? After growing up in South Africa and playing U18 and U20 rugby for the Boks he looked set to break into the senior ranks. It never quite happened for the thundering number eight, and he later revealed that he was seen as too small to be in the South African pack.
Munster certainly didn’t question his size, and in 2012 they signed him as a way around the IRFU rule stating they couldn’t add any more internationally capped players. At the time Stander’s accent was fresh off the veldt, not the bog.
Since then he’s gone on to become a leading light in European rugby. At just 27 years old he’s already a Munster stalwart and an Irish hero, regardless of the fact he spent the first 22 years dreaming of being a Springbok.
It’s not an isolated incident either. David Nucifora and the IRFU have set up a dedicated ‘IQ Rugby’ programme for overseas players. The programme launched this year aims to combat the recent rule changes and scout out potential future Irish stars playing their rugby overseas.
As if their current bounty wasn’t enough to go on. With the likely additions of Bundee Aki and Tyler Bleyendaal, the Irish could easily line out this time next year with more backs born outside of Ireland than in it.
In May of this year, World Rugby vice-chairman Augustine Pichot finally got his wish and the residency period for international qualification was increased to 5 years. A move hailed as a huge step in the right direction.
In his eyes ‘project players’ are just a way of the larger tier one nations buying an advantage over the smaller unions, and that the idea money could have any impact on the international game is fundamentally wrong.
The extra two year waiting period certainly makes it more difficult for a player to justify emigrating to play on the biggest stage. Five years is a long time in the career of even the top players.
What remains to be seen is whether the rule change will put a halt to ‘project players’, or whether they’ll just start moving earlier. It’s easy to see why coaches will pick the best players on offer, but what about the ones who don’t make it? An international jersey is always earned, but the question remains, should it only ever be on offer to those working for it their whole life and not just for 5 years?
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