Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Pacific Islanders state their positions on eligibility loophole


The Pacific Island trio of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa have now all talked about their positions and views on the new Olympic 7's eligibility loophole to the media in recent days.

With a large amount of their eligible player base from Australia and especially New Zealand, the Pacific Islanders, in particular Tonga and Samoa were possible biggest beneficiaries of an opening up of a loophole that could allow players previously cap tied to switch nationality again.

The new ruling means that a player who has not represented their country over the last 18 months can be eligible to switch nations in next season's Sevens World Series or designated Regional Olympic Qualifying Even if they possess the relevant national passport. And once the player has done that they switch nationality at all levels of rugby including XV's and can never change again. Then after next season it then changes to  increase to a 3 year absence in international rugby only able to switch in the Olympics or an Olympic qualifying event, making it only possible once every 4 years.

Various media outlets have got a bit carried away with the potential possibilities worldwide forgetting that Olympic qualification is at stake. Serious 7's nations would unlikely be looking at sacrificing their Olympic chances to get a front rower or big lock available for their XV's programme.

Fiji coach John McKee stated that the loophole "was certainly of interest to us" and said there may be a couple of players who may have passports, but in reality Fiji's XV's team will get very little benefit out of it. Much has been made of potential returns for famous All Blacks Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, but they are firstly well past their prime and secondly both wingers.
Aged All Blacks would not be
likely to improve Fiji a great
deal as they already possess
a huge amount of talented
wingers, including the top try
scorers in both the English
and French leagues.

And really the only position that ex-All Blacks become available for Fiji is wing, and the Fijians are already humongously stacked at wing. With players like Talebula, Goneva, Nadolo, Nalaga, Nagusa and Bobo all with good try scoring records for their clubs, and Votu and Nayacalevu not even able to make the team calling up aged players who will be 32 and 33 years old in 2015 is not going to improve the side a great deal.

Fiji may be far more likely to try and find talent to boost their 7's programme, looking at ex All Black 7's players, than doing much that will be relevant to the strength of the side at the next World Cup.

Samoa though have a far more widespread player base in New Zealand position wise, and more eligible players who are tied to New Zealand. Coach Stephen Betham told the Samoa Observer that he would not be approaching players, but was open to using it.

However again the extent of players coming in has been exaggerated by some parts of the media. Samoa are not going to be gaining former All Blacks en masse, but more likely maybe just a couple. Betham said that the Sevens programme would not put their Olympic qualification at risk by shoehorning a player to be available for the XV's side.
Samoa will not risk Olympic
7's qualifying by shoehorning
front rowers, locks or aged
players into their squad.

There will be no props like John Afoa, and also no digging out old players like Mose Tuiali'i and Chris Masoe who will be 34 and 36 respectively by the time of the World Cup and were two players suggested by a widely circulated One News report. There's virtually no chance of clogging up a 7's squad for Olympic qualification with players in their mid 30's, who would be selected on being a big name rather than necessarily better than the younger options in the squad.

Players who could switch would more likely to be less well publicised younger names and of more use to a 7's side. Fritz Lee, Alex Tulou, David Smith or Tim Nanai-Williams who played for New Zealand 7's a few years ago, are more realistic types of player who could become available. Ex All Blacks Lelia Masaga and Isaia Toeava or Junior All Black Robbie Fruean, still only aged 26, 27 and 28 could also be options if they have a passport. But it's unlikely all those switches would happen and they would probably only apply to those who make Titimaea Tafua's 7's squad (a squad where local talent has been very much preferred in recent times) on merit not on a basis to be available for XV's.
32 year old ex All Black
Anthony Tuitavake is said to
be "keen" to play for Tonga

Finally former Tonga centre Epi Taione who is now chairman of the Tongan Rugby Union has mentioned a slightly different approach. He talked of his delight of the loophole and that there had been contact with a number of players who could become available for the World Cup and had "expressed interest", including ex Wallabies Mark Gerrard, Cooper Vuna, Sitaleki Timani and ex All Blacks Anthony Tuitavake and Sam Tuitupou.

However there was also some massive misreporting in the widely circulated One News online report. If you listen to the interview properly, Taione said picking a player like George Smith with over 100 caps was "far fetched" yet the report states he is a "major target". It also dug out names like Roy Kinikinilau, not mentioned at all in the radio interview and a player who will be 35 by the time of the World Cup and 8 years since he played Super 14 and a curious selection.

From Taione's comments it seems unlike Fiji and Samoa who are both legitimate Olympic 7's contenders, that Tonga may be taking more of an approach of using 7's to boost their World Cup squad. Although he left it lot more unclear than the misleading report suggests.

Taione said that the names referenced above had "expressed interest" not that they were going to be necessarily picked which was dependant on a meeting with the coaches. And when asked about Sitaleki Timani's suitability to 7's, he also said that "it doesn't make sense" for players like Saimone Taumoepeau and Rodney Blake to be drafted into a 7's squad, which also leaves it unclear whether they are planning on sacrificing the Olympic qualification completely by picking props and locks in the team, an occurrence that if it occurs would surely backfire on the Olympics as it would make it look a joke.

However despite being big names, it's worth remembering these players are aged. Gerrard, Tuitavake and Tuitupou will all be 33 in 2015 and whilst a couple aged players may offer some very valuable experience, but more than that and those in their prime are missing out.
Unless Tonga want to field a team of players in their 30's it's not likely to be massively widespread, but more like following what Japan did in 1999 picking a few aged former All Blacks like Graeme Bachop and Jamie Joseph (which was a complete failure though).
Fritz Lee: a reasonably young
former All Black 7's player
who is a player far more likely
to use of the loophole and go
on and contribute significantly
than aged players in their 30's.

So whilst the impact has been overstated perhaps a bit, and various news outlets are just plucking out big name players well into their mid 30's who are years past their best, it could be a bit helpful to Tonga and Samoa. Looking at the specific possible players, mostly Samoa with someone like Fritz Lee (who has already said he is keen to play on Twitter) who could be available for the next two World Cups. Former Australia A fly half Daniel Halangahu may also be of use for Tonga in a weaker position in the squad.

There are losers out of all this though. For nations such as Georgia or Japan who don't have top class New Zealanders to go through a loophole and into their side and won't benefit, with competitors strengthening their chances of winning 2 games at the World Cup will be tougher.

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