by Kevin O'Brien
Agustín Pichot was elected World Rugby Vice President in 2015. Amongst the first topics he highlighted as one that needed urgent attention was that of residency rules, which allow players to play for a country other than that of their birth. This remains a very live topic in world rugby as we see the continued use of project players by most, if not all, major rugby nations as they seek to improve or expand their player pools. Under the current rules as we all know, you can qualify to play for a country simply by living in that country for three years. In addition, it’s also possible to play for a country if you have a parent or grandparent from that country. This whole area causes much debate in rugby circles and raises a number of questions. Is the qualifying period too short? Should Project Players be allowed at all? Are the bigger nations hampering the development of emerging rugby nations by poaching their players?
In an Irish context should we concentrate our limited resources on producing our own players and not bother with potentially costly project players who might never play for Ireland? I wrote an article in 2015 called ‘Project Ireland.’ In that piece I outlined that it would soon be possible for Ireland to put out a test team full of players born outside the country. Well now it is possible for Joe to pick such a team.....
- Michael Bent (NZ - Grandparent) 9. Kieron Marmion (Eng - Grandparent)
- Richart Strauss (SA - Project) 10. Brett Herron (Eng – Grandparent)
- Finlay Belham (Aus - Grandparent) 11. Alex Wotton ( Eng – Parent)
- Quinn Roux (SA - Project) 12. Rory Parata (Aus - Parent)
- Dan Tuohy (Eng – Project) 13. Jared Payne (NZ - Project)
- CJ Stander (SA - Project) 14. Danie Poolman (SA - Project)
- Sean Reidy (NZ - (Grandparent) 15. Louis Ludik (SA - Project)
- Robbie Diack (SA - Project)
Subs – Rodney Ah You (P), W Herbst (P), Rob Herring, Mike McCarthy, Tom McCartney (P), Nathan White (P), Rodney Ah You (P), Robertson McCoy, Sean Reidy, Kieran Treadwell, Sam Windsor, Brett Herron, Peter Browne, Lorcan Dow, Rory Parata, Josh Rowland, (P) = Project
Bundee Aki, Tyler Bleyendaal, Jake Heenan, Jamison Gibson Park, Jacob Kleyn – Current project players not yet qualified
The selection above is made up of both project players and those that qualify under the parentage rules. From those listed as the starting XV, six qualify for Ireland by virtue of having either an Irish parent or grandparent. Personally speaking I have no problem selecting players who qualify under this rule. There is a genuine connection to the country and if these guys demonstrate the required ability and are committed to the cause, well then that’s fine by me.
Perhaps there is an issue around the quality of such players though. Given the strictness of IRFU rules now regarding player recruitment the provinces often seem to take a punt on experienced journeymen or youngsters with potential who have Irish connections. Would we be better served promoting more academy players to senior squads? This option makes sense to me given how slow I feel we are at bringing through young talent. We could also give guys in the All Ireland League (AIL) a chance to prove themselves? After all look at the success of players who perhaps came late to pro rugby following time playing in the AIL such as Adeolukun or Joey Carberry who has come into the Leinster team this year after starring in the AIL last season. However for every success there has been plenty of players from the AIL, who were brought into the provincial squads and ultimately didn’t make it. Like recruitment of overseas guys it’s about finding the right quality.
The real issue for me though is the continued use of project players. Nine players of the starting 15 are such players with a further five named amongst the subs. These guys have no connection to the country other than the fact that they have played their club rugby here for three years. The number of project players available to team Ireland will increase further when the likes of Bundi Aki (if he stays) Jake Heenan and Tom McCartney qualify over the course of the next year. In addition we have recent arrivals Jamison Gibson Park and Jacob Kleyn both harbouring thoughts of playing for Ireland at the end of their initial 3 year qualifying period. These guys are all quality players who would be great additions to any team and I don’t doubt their commitment to playing for Ireland. However it was Bundi Aki himself who posed the question in a recent interview as to whether it is right that he or anyone should take the place of a local Irish guy who grew up dreaming of playing for Ireland.
In an ideal world the answer to Aki’s question is no. But we don’t live in an ideal world. It is part of the modern game now that players move seeking the economic benefit that may accrue from representing another country. You can’t really blame the players seeking to maximise income from what can be short careers especially given the level of attrition involved. Many commentators have stated that the residency period of three years needs to be increased to at least five. I don’t disagree with this as it would reward players who show real commitment to a new country and might encourage countries to focus efforts on indigenous player development.
In my view Mr. Pichot is correct that the whole topic of residency rules and players being able to play for another country after three years needs to be addressed. Whilst it’s a very important issue to him, given comments from various Unions including the IRFU, who are happy with the rules as they are, World Rugby’s Vice President has a fight on his hands to change things in this regard. I would like to see at the very minimum an increase in the residency requirement to a minimum of 5 years. But given the way our rugby overlord’s deal with such issues I won’t hold my breath on it happening anytime soon. The fact that we can now field practically a full squad of project players is one that frankly saddens and troubles me. It just doesn’t feel right. It seems for now that we are stuck with the project player eh project. So good look with the crusade Mr. Pichot. Rugby needs you to be successful.
Kevin O’Brien (@marywards) : Rugby mad Leinster man exiled in Connaught. Father of 3 with wife who hates sport but tolerates rugby.
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