Monday, 6 August 2018

The Pacific Islands desired eligibility reforms will never happen

Charles Piutau has been seeking to
switch to Tonga in time for RWC 2019
Recently a handful of articles have appeared asking for reform to the eligibility laws to allow former internationals from Tier 1 nations to represent more than one nation.

This is something that Samoans and Tongans have wanted for years pretty much ever since the rules tightened in 2000 and it is not hard to work out why. They both have a number of outstanding players who would have been eligible for them either by birth or heritage had they not represented New Zealand or in some cases Australia, who are now mostly based in Europe with inactive international careers. Over 16 years ago it was the likes of Andrew Blowers, Alama Ieremia, Dylan Mika who really wanted change in time for them to play at RWC 2003. Now it is the likes of Victor Vito, Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, or Sitaleki Timani who are in the same position (although unlike previous players there is the possibility once every four years of them switching through Olympic 7s).

There is a reasonable argument to make in favour of this. Adding that calibre of player to the RWC would immediately boost the depth and on field quality of the tournament. However, there are also arguments to be made against it that the Pacific Islanders do not seem to have fully considered.

First of all many of the articles from Samoans on this issue have been misrepresenting reforming eligibility to the benefit of Tier 2 nations generically, or simply poorer nations generically.

Dan Leo tweeted "about time @worldrugby made a ruling on eligibility that truly favours Tier 2/3 Nations". Pacific Rugby Players Welfare tweeted in regards to the one nation rule "hinders poorer nations [...] and only serves interests of already established rugby nations". The headline on read "push for rugby eligibility law change to aid poorer nations".

That is simply not true. It is a reform that primarily benefits nations like Samoa, or possibly also Spain, both of which are teams who select a considerable (usually at least over 60%) amount of players with heritage through parents or grandparents from a nearby Tier 1 nation.

For other nations though whose players are usually entirely raised and developed through their own system, it not just has no benefit but it actively puts them at a disadvantage to their competitors.

It is of no benefit to for example Georgia, if the introduction of a number of All Blacks to the Samoan team bumped them down their RWC pool. Or Uruguay, if the team they had invested a lot of planning and resources into developing were pushed out of a RWC at the expense of a Spanish team that had just drafted in a number of former French players with Spanish grandmothers.
Image result for madagascar rugby
Looser eligibility laws would in fact be
a hindrance to one of the poorest rugby
nations in the world in Madagascar

Also moving somewhat down to the rankings. It is also of no benefit to say for example Madagascar, which according to the IMF is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, or another relatively not well-off country like Uganda if they were either relegated or denied promotion to the Africa Gold Cup by a North African team who has been able to bring in a number of French internationals.

In sport there will always be winners and losers. There are small nations that would miss out due to those proposed eligibility changes just as there would be some that gain.

Pacific Rugby Players Welfare has said as part of their argument for this that "better results at RWC = increased sponsorship money". Yet by the same token that also means somebody (likely another Tier 2 nation) getting worse results at RWC and less sponsorship money. That is just the way sports works.

In the end there is some validity to both sides of the argument. Samoa would argue that its a waste to have such talent outside international rugby and they can make the RWC stronger.

Whilst on the otherhand a country like Uruguay would argue for the international game, which is the sport's key vehicle to grow and attract new fans, to try and Rugby League its way to a stronger RWC through ex-Tier 1 players at the expense of Unions who have actually gone and put significant time and resources into improving their own development programs is short-term thinking, which will only serve to discourage further growth and investment into the sport and its reach globally in the longer term.

There is no clear right or wrong answer in this debate though. The question of what the eligibility law ought to be can never be settled and people will always argue strongly one way or the other depending on their personal judgement over whether it should be tighter or looser.

However regardless of what people think should happen. There is simply no way the Samoans or Tongans have any chance of being granted the reforms they want. Even the SRU themselves have acknowledged that "as a matter of fact, it's probably almost impossible".
Image result for Steve Tew oceania
The proposal Samoa suggest is similar
to the one NZRU CEO Steve Tew put
forward to the IRB Council in 2010

We know this as a similar proposal backed by New Zealand "to allow players of Pacific or other ethnic backgrounds to switch from tier one to tier two nations after a 12-month wait" was already put to vote on the IRB Council back in 2010 and rejected. There has been nothing to suggest the landscape has changed since then.

The World Rugby council is comprised of 48 votes, which includes three each to each Tier 1 nations, two to Japan, one each to Canada, USA, Romania, & Georgia, plus two each to the six regional associations. If you are wondering why none of the Pacific Island nations has any votes it is presumably on the basis they failed the minimum criteria "to demonstrate good governance" which is required to be eligible for council membership.

Of those votes, there are five guaranteed in New Zealand and Oceania Rugby. Then maybe Africa perhaps and two or three others. But other than that, especially under the proposal the Samoans suggest they are struggling to find much support and there is plenty of opposition.

South Americans would certainly be staunchly against it. You would imagine both Georgia and Romania would be too. Whilst a team like Italy for example who have most to lose from such a change and would argue, with some justification, that it would be very unfair for them to have to play under a different set of disadvantageous rules to that of some of their closest competitors who are actually ranked above them like Japan or Fiji.
Image result for pat lam samoa
Pat Lam on his way to a try to help
Samoa beat Wales at RWC 1999

You can certainly mark them all down to be strongly opposed, just as you can every other nation that could vote for a rule that could plausibly risk bumping them out of the RWC quarter-final lineup or out of the RWC automatic qualifying places. In fact, Samoa beating Wales and Ireland in the 1990s with the likes of Stephen Bachop, Inga Tuigamala, Pat Lam, Frank Bunce, Dylan Mika apparently played a role in the change to it being one nation back in 2000.

As NZRU CEO Steve Tew said at the time of the vote in 2010: "the reality is there is a group of northern unions that is very nervous about strengthening the island nations".

Whilst Oceania Rugby president Harry Schuster who said "we are devastated" at the rejection of the proposal also mentioned who was opposed: "the Celtic unions mounted the strongest opposition, they were just looking for excuses to stop our proposal because the fact of the matter is, they are so scared of how powerful we'll become if it goes through".

The only way any of those Tier 1 nations could maybe be possibly be convinced if the proposal were to allow loose eligibility rules to apply to their advantage too. If Wales for instance, were allowed to pick Shannon Frizell if his All Blacks career does not end up being a lengthy one.

However there is a reason why Pacific Islanders suggest switching from Tier 1 to Tier 2 nations only. The reason being totally loose eligibility laws on switching nations really would be a disaster and only serve the interests of Tier 1 nations. We already have seen uncapped Fijians play for England or France after qualifying on residency, if the rules on switching nations were relaxed that could extend to full internationals too. Nemani Nadolo could get taken back by Australia, Scotland could have lined up an international like Leone Nakarawa as a project player, or Josua Tuisova switch to France.

Safe to say that is not something the Pacific nations, nor any other Tier 2 nation would be backing and would cause disgust from many rugby fans. Hence why the only rule that keeps getting suggested is to allow solely unused Tier 1 players to switch to Tier 2 (with varying criteria of different stand down periods or caps), and that simply has zero chance of gaining a majority of the World Rugby council vote.

No comments :

Post a Comment