Back in late 2021, World Rugby initiated one of the boldest and most progressive moves in the history of its governance during the professional era. All of a sudden, gone were the restrictions on players representing more than one country in the course of their careers.
It was a seismic shift which is set to send out far-reaching ripples on the international stage – perhaps even wider and deeper than originally anticipated. From January 2022 onwards, a player has been able to represent a second country – via place of birth, parentage or grand-parentage – after a stand-down period of three years.
The only restriction is that the switch can be made just once. There can be no constant swapping of allegiances of the ‘compare-the-market’ type, according to taste or trend, or simply the best deal on offer.
The main purpose is to benefit nations like Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, who often find their best talent siphoned off quite legitimately by New Zealand or Australia, as soon as it is identified. Those two countries enjoy established professional cultures and pathways while the island nations (at least, until the foundation of the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika in the latest iteration of Super Rugby Pacific) do not.
As the International Players Union chief executive Omar Hassanein remarked at the time of the rule change, “Many players across the world will now benefit from the chance to represent the country of their or their ancestors’ birth, serving as a real boost to the competitiveness of emerging nations, which in turn, will benefit the game as a whole.”
Already there are signs that those nations can become competitive, at least to the point of upsetting potential World Cup contenders in the group stages – maybe more than that in future.
The recently-announced Tonga squad to prepare for the World Cup in September is a case in point. The pack includes Vaea Fifita, who played 11 times for the All Blacks before the 2019 World Cup and was the Scarlets’ outstanding forward in the 2022-2023 URC; plus Adam Coleman and Lopeti Timani, who represented Australia on no fewer than 50 occasions between them.
Add in Fifita’s second-row partner-in-crime down at Llanelli, Sam Lousi, a smattering of Top 14 stalwarts like Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, Sitiveni Mafi and the mountainous 140 kilos of ex-New Zealand under 20s prop Ben Tameifuna, then stir. Sprinkle on a pair of Super Rugby regulars, Queensland Reds prop Feao Fotuaika – who was being mentioned in fringe Wallabies dispatches not so very long ago – and current Crusader Sione Havili Talitui, and you have the basis of a sound and mobile forward unit.
The picture brightens even further in the three-quarters, where All Blacks Malakai Fekitoa and George Moala have been added to a midfield which already includes Stade Toulousain starter and ex-New Zealand Sevens star Pita Ahki. Further back you find Charles Piutau and Israel Folau in the back three, and their 90 caps combined for full-fat New Zealand and Australia. Piutau has arguably been the best outside back in European club rugby for most of the last decade.
The only area of relative weakness is in the halves, but the additions as they stand should be more than enough to groove a furrow or two in the collective brows of Ireland, South Africa and Scotland, who have to face the ‘Ikale Tahi in pool play. There will not just be the traditional islander physicality and inspiration on offer, there will be plenty of European and Southern Hemisphere provincial expertise to hand as well.
One of the most intriguing, and more unexpected developments is the possibility of transfers between tier one nations, or ‘superpower swaps’
It is the same with Samoa, who have been able to call on the services of ex-All Blacks Charlie Faumuina, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Steven Luatua and Lima Sopo’aga, and Wallaby legend Christian Leali’ifano to guide and nurture a raft of outstanding young talents like Theo McFarland, Miracle Fai’ilagi and UJ Seuteni.
But one of the most intriguing, and more unexpected developments is the possibility of transfers between tier one nations, or ‘superpower swaps’. La Rochelle’s European Champions Cup-winning scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow wore the Silver Fern no fewer than 29 times, but now he is talking about swapping all black for the green-and-gold.
He was, after all, born in Melbourne and grew up in Darwin in the Northern Territory, and as Eddie Jones himself said recently, Australia’s recent record now suggests it is no better than a ‘tier two [rugby] nation’. So, Kerr-Barlow for the Wallabies? Why not?
“You get players who play a handful of Tests for a country and that is their eligibility shot and they have still got a lot to offer world rugby,” Kerr-Barlow previously told RugbyPass. “We all want world rugby to be strong, we want it to be a spectacle and some of the best players in the world, they move overseas and they grow and they improve.
“You have got the likes of Charles Piutau in England, Steven Luatua is there, you have got Victor Vito in France, you have got all these guys who could add so much to their country.
“I’d love to chuck on the Australian jersey as I spent the first part of life in Australia, my family is still there and I’m very grateful for what they have done for my family. My mum played for Australia.
“It [the eligibility rule] is a positive thing. You will get people saying, ‘Oh, you know, you’re not loyal’ or ‘How can you play for one country and play for another?’ But if you are born in a country or your parents are born there and you feel a certain way about the country and you have got roots already established, then why not?”
Why not, indeed? It is part of the growth of the game as a whole and it reflects the marginal gains of the individual, as he or she moves through a variety of different experiences and settings in their career. The freedom to find a new voice on a new platform is important.
There is no doubt that Tawera Kerr-Barlow has grown out of the cocoon of New Zealand rugby – as silky and well-spun as it is – to spread his wings and blossom into a primrose-coloured butterfly on the Atlantic coast of France, and he has done it in his thirties.
The scrum-half is Le Petit General in France, the main man. What he says, goes.
As the man himself says, “[The Top 14] has allowed me to improve my kicking game and my control and it is a little bit different… The No 9 controls the play and the tempo of the game a lot more than we do in New Zealand, which I obviously enjoy.”
The scrum-half is Le Petit General in France, the main man. What he says, goes. He took charge of proceedings in the Champion’s Cup quarter-final against Saracens right from the opening kick-off:
Typically, you’d expect the fullback to be taking a kick-off straight up the middle towards the 22, but here it is the No 9 who makes an imperious receipt.
Think back to some of the French greats like Dmitri Yachvili and Morgan Parra, and you’ll know that it is the No 9 who dominates the tactical thinking of the majority of French teams, at club or national level. This has drawn another tier of tactical mastery out of the Melbourne man.
Kerr-Barlow’s kicking versus Toulouse in the Top 14 final was instrumental in building a lead for Stade Rochelais:
In the first instance, he immediately sees the opportunity for the 50/22 turnover lineout after picking up a loose ball; in the second example he hauls down Romain Ntamack one-on-one after chasing his own kick deep into the Toulousain 22. That triggered another turnover, this time via a vicious counter-ruck after the tackle.
With Kerr-Barlow on the field for 68 minutes, La Rochelle were winning the final, without him they lost it in the dying embers. It was the scrumhalf who ‘switched on’ every time his all-world rival, Antoine Dupont touched the ball in a potentially dangerous situation:
It’s a penalty to Toulouse and these are precisely the kind of scenarios where Dupont will spark a spectacular length-of-the-field counter-attack off the tapped penalty. In this case, his yellow shadow is at hand, filling those all-important wide channels ahead of time. It’s five on two at the critical moment:
No overlap, no try – but another turnover instead.
During his time in France, Tawera Kerr-Barlow has developed a fine feeling for the nuances of attacking play around the edges of the ruck:
The former All Black sees that the Toulousain forwards are going to be late around the corner of the breakdown after a charge by Will Skelton, and leaves his post at the base of the ruck to become a first receiver who can exploit it. It is a simple change, but it is very deadly.
The ex-Chiefs man has become an expert at manipulating the defensive screen of forwards close to ruck-side:
In the first clip he pulls the screen onto Greg Alldritt before looping around him into the vacant space inside the first Saracens back, Nick Tompkins, in the second he drags it away from the ruck before slipping a deft inside pass to his hooker Pierre Bourgarit straight up the gut. Stade Rochelais scored on the very next play. New Zealand could do with some of that attacking guile around the breakdown, not to mention the Wallabies.
The No 9 spot is one of the deeper positions in Eddie Jones’ Australian squad for the Rugby Championship, due to start in July. He can perm any three from four of Nic White, Tate McDermott, Ryan Lonergan and Jake Gordon for the World Cup and know that he is well-covered.
But behind Nic White, there is nobody better in Australia at executing the scrum-half’s tactical role as Le Petit General than Tawera Kerr-Barlow, and the ex-All Black has made himself available to the country of his birth.
It may be a novel way of interpreting the 2021 relaxation of World Rugby’s rules on eligibility, but it adds a whole new layer of interest and intrigue to the concept of ‘levelling-up’, when a player who has represented one top-tier rugby nation can now transfer his allegiance to another. One thing is certain: if Eddie Jones chooses to pick him, Tawera Kerr-Barlow will be ready, and he will be more than good enough for the green-and-gold.