New eligibility rules are not without risk but they offer players new pathways and reflect the reality of multiple identities
When World Rugby announced that eligibility laws would be changing this week I found myself joking that I’m actually available to play for Nigeria now. Joking because it’s just a little bit too late in the day for me – I’m not sure I’d be selected! – but it got me thinking whether there is something I can do to help grow and develop the sport in a country I have huge affection for, the place where it all started for me.
I hope I’m not the only one because the change opens up so many possibilities for current players but also for people to help in other ways. I hope this rule really instigates a positive mindset in people. The world is a smaller place – more and more players and ex-players will have roots or heritage in more than one country – and it is something to be celebrated. Since rugby went professional there has not been much diversity in the teams at the top end of the world game but hopefully this is the start of something that can change that.
My other hope is that the rule does not become exploited in some way. It is a professional sport and in professional sport there are rarely any rules where loopholes are not looked for and where the system is not gamed. There are always unintended consequences but if this rule is put to proper use it can be hugely beneficial for developing nations.
On a basic human level it will be heartwarming to think of supporters in Tonga, Samoa or Fiji, who have followed players from afar, getting to see them coming “home”, as it were. It must be such an exciting time for them and I’m sure they’re already picking their dream teams for the 2023 World Cup. It is ironic that, for reasons well beyond their control, Samoa are severely depleted when they take on the Barbarians at Twickenham on Saturday. At least their supporters have been brought some cheer this week, knowing that in the not too distant future their ranks will be considerably bolstered.
It’s important to consider both the short- and long-term impacts of this decision and, in the short-term, there is a World Cup on the horizon. It is also important to recognise that it is not only the Pacific Island nations who stand to benefit, but there are many reasons why they provide the best examples. And if you think of World Cups, no one wants to be drawn in the same pool as Samoa, Tonga or Fiji anyway – all the more so now.
They will be boosted by some players who are perhaps no longer in their prime but who can bring with them so much extensive knowledge, insight and intelligence into what it takes to perform at the highest level in an elite environment. That will be just as valuable as what they can do on the field. On top of that, you have a tranche of players who have been left in the wilderness. Players who perhaps are in their prime but have been capped once or twice by one nation and so, while they are of international quality, they’ve been frozen out.
It isn’t quite a restraint of trade but now a huge opportunity has been opened for them. They probably had to make a huge decision over the rest of their careers at a young age but now they’ve been given a second chance because it is just sad when you see players take that leap, get a handful of caps and then get left in the cold. This is an opportunity for players to resuscitate their careers and for some developing nations to get players back who will bolster their ambitions and hopefully make the World Cup a lot more competitive.
In the long term, however, the key is to build on this and try to implement pathways for players so they don’t just want to play for their country while being based in a foreign league. That means unions in developing nations getting their houses in order, using good governance to make their domestic competitions more enticing.
One of the potential issues with this ruling is that players who were signed by their clubs on the basis that they wouldn’t be lost to the international circuit now find themselves in a difficult position. It is far less of a problem, however, if the clubs in their own countries are an attractive proposition.
It is also important to acknowledge that while the change has on the whole been well received, there will always be downsides. The cynical part of me sees how the system can be taken advantage of and my concern would be that players from developing nations look to join clubs in established leagues, chance their arm and try and have a shot with the national team.
They might go on to have a prosperous career with that nation or they might win one or two caps, then sign a three-year deal – with the added bargaining chip that they will be off the international circuit while they stand down – and then head home.
That is a situation I can unfortunately envisage but in rugby sometimes we can focus on the problems and the negatives too much and on the whole this change can be a force for good.