Tonga Rugby Union [TRU] chief executive Peter Harding has cast doubt over the feasibility of Charles Piutau’s potential switch of international allegiance.
A report from RNZ earlier this month indicated the former All Blacks star was in line to play sevens for Tonga at the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament in Monaco in June with the aim of becoming eligible for the nation at test level.
Players with dual eligibility who have already bound themselves to one country by representing that nation at XVs or sevens level can switch to their other country of allegiance through a loophole spurred on by rugby’s involvement at the Olympics.
A clash in regulations between World Rugby and the International Olympic Committee allows players to represent their second nation provided they have a passport for that country and have completed a three-year international stand down.
Once the stand down is completed, players must partake in an Olympic event to make themselves eligible for their new nation at all levels.
Piutau played the last of his 17 tests for the All Blacks in 2015 before taking up multiple lucrative deals with European clubs in the Premiership and PRO14.
Having not played test rugby for almost six years, the former Tonga U20 representative is eligible to play for the Tongan sevens team later this year in what will be their last chance at qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.
However, Harding, who was appointed TRU chief executive in January, poured cold water on that concept during an interview with ABC last week.
Harding said that while Piutau is now eligible to play sevens for Tonga, the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament coincides with the Premiership play-offs that his club side, Bristol Bears, are likely to be playing in.
The qualifying event is scheduled to be held on the weekend of June 19-20, the same weekend the Premiership semi-finals are taking place.
Piutau’s Bristol side currently lie in first place, 12 points clear of second-placed Exeter Chiefs, and are among the favourites to take out the English club competition.
That means they are highly likely to be involved in that weekend of semi-final action, which would leave Piutau facing a conflict of interests.
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“We’d love all these players to come back and play for us, and a lot of them have given us very positive indications that they will come back to us,” Harding told ABC.
“We’ve been through this process for a number of years now, talking to them. I know the sevens management have talked to them a lot. It’s an innovative process that World Rugby have come up with, and, in theory, it can work.
“But, the reality of the situation is they are the best players in their clubs, and these players, when the competition is on on the 20th of June, these clubs are in semi-finals in the French competition and in the Premiership in England.
“Now, for these players to put their hand up and come and play for Tonga, that could put them in conflict with the clubs.
“These are the people who pay their wages and support their families, so although the players’ desire is to play international rugby for Tonga, the practicality of it, the business decisions, they just can’t take that chance.
“For them to walk up to their coach and say, ‘I’m not playing this weekend in this semi-final because I’m going to go and qualify for Tonga in Monaco in the sevens’, that takes a lot of guts and a lot of courage for any person in the world.
“While the idea is great, I think the practicality is that people have to look at the tables in France and England, see who those players play for and whether they’re going to be in semi-finals, and then they can more or less make their own mind up.
“If you were Charles Piutau, would you put £1 million at risk by not turning up to the semi-final? While all good intention is that he may come, it’s a hell of a decision for a human being to make.
“My personal feeling is that we’ve run out of time with these guys and they’re all playing for their teams and we won’t get them.”
Should Piutau miss out on playing for Tonga in June’s sevens tournament, he would have to wait until the next Olympic qualification event to switch his allegiance from New Zealand.
Given Tonga aren’t currently a core side on the World Sevens Series, the next possible opportunity would be the 2023 Oceania Sevens Championship.
By the time that tournament kicks-off, Piutau would be 32 and would have missed the chance to play for Tonga at the 2023 World Cup.
That led Harding to call on World Rugby to alter the rules around switching international allegiance.
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He highlighted the current format of initially representing your second nation in sevens before being eligible to play XVs for that country only helps players with the skill set suited to sevens.
“This would only really benefit back rowers, backs. It’s not going to fit props or big, heavy second rowers. They just can’t use this way [of switching allegiance].”
However, Harding stressed a cautionary approach would be needed if any change was made to the current laws as he feared rugby union would follow in the footsteps of rugby league, where eligibility rules are much more loose.
“As to another system of getting players across, we’ve got to be careful not to become like rugby league, where people can just flick back and forth between countries,” he said.
“Personally, I don’t think we can just have flags of convenience where people go where they want to, when they want to. There’s got to be a definite philosophy and strategy behind how we get to that point.”
While Harding has effectively given up on the race to make Piutau eligible for Tonga, there is still hope for another fellow All Black in the form of Malakai Fekitoa.
The 28-year-old midfielder made the last of his 24 appearances for the All Blacks in 2017, meaning he has completed the three-year stand down period required of him to switch allegiance to Tonga, his nation of birth.
More importantly, though, is that Fekitoa is unlikely to be playing involved in club rugby during the same time as the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament considering his side, Wasps, are languishing in ninth place in the Premiership.
With seven matches left in the regular season, the Coventry-based club trail fourth-placed Harlequins by 14 points, meaning a significant turnaround in fortunes is required if they are to feature in the competition’s final four.
Should they be unable to clinch a semi-final berth, Fekitoa could become available to represent Tonga in Monaco in what would be a significant boost for the ‘Ikale Tahi leading into the 2023 World Cup in France.
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