SINGAPORE, May 7 (Reuters) - Less than five months before the World Cup kicks off in England and Wales, some of rugby’s best players are still deciding which country to represent. For many, money, rather than national pride, could be the deciding factor.
The days have long gone when players unhesitatingly opted to play for the land where they were born and raised. Now, players can pick and choose who they want to appear for, thanks to the sport’s controversial eligibility rules.
The most common loophole is through parents.
Players whose parents or grandparents were born in foreign countries can switch to those teams, a rule which has seen a spate of Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans qualify for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
The most contentious rule, however, is the one concerning residency, which allows players to represent countries where they have lived for just three years.
The only proviso is that they cannot switch nationalities if they have already played at senior international level.
This has led to dozens of players, particularly from the Pacific Islands and South Africa, pledging their allegiance to richer teams, especially in Europe, and to a lesser extent in Japan, who will host the 2019 rugby World Cup.
Although countries like Fiji and Samoa have long been rugby hot-beds, they cannot compete with the massive money being offered by clubs in England and France.
So their best players invariably head overseas then play for their adopted homeland after completing their three years of residence.
Each of the teams in this year’s European Six Nations was packed with foreign-born players, who have already completed the residency rules.
Others will be eligible just in time for the start of the World Cup in September, while some will sit out the tournament because they want to play for their adopted homeland in the future.
Fijian-born number eight Nathan Hughes is currently eligible to play for Fiji, Samoa or New Zealand at the World Cup but he is planning to skip the tournament so he can represent England, where he is now based, from 2016.
The critics, and there are plenty, have called for changes to the rules, saying they tarnish the integrity of international rugby and threaten to turn this year’s World Cup into a fiasco.
The issue has taken on added importance with rugby sevens being introduced to next year’s Rio Olympics, with calls for the eligibility period to be extended from three to five years.
Earlier this week, World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said officials were preparing to review the legislations.
“I think obviously there is a concentration of club wealth in the northern hemisphere, there’s no question that the salaries are very high in France and in England and it’s very tempting for players to ply their trade in the northern hemisphere,” Gosper told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“When that (rule) was determined, I don’t think there was quite the flow of players in international movement that it’s become in recent years, through Europe and Japan, and so on,” he added.
“So maybe it’s time to take a look at that, and see if that’s correct or some adjustment needs to be made.”
Any changes to the current rule are still likely to face stiff opposition from rugby’s richest nations, who have benefited the most from the current set-up.
The former Australian captain George Gregan said the decision should be up to the players and he feared some would miss out altogether if they had to wait too long.
“If most professional rugby careers go for more than six years, that is a good career; and if you have to wait five of those six years to represent a country you miss out,” Gregan said.
“If someone genuinely wants to change their country of citizenship and represent that country in rugby, I think three years is pretty good to be honest.” (Editing by John O’Brien)