Fiji-born Taqele Naiyaravoro is one of countless international rugby players representing a nation on residency rulesNaparazzi

Denny Solomona is just the latest player seeking to benefit from World Rugby’s lax eligibility criteria. Despite being born in New Zealand, and having represented Samoa in rugby league, Solomona has recently declared his desire to represent England in rugby union, having satisfied the three-year residency criterion. While there’s no doubt he would be an asset for England, this does not seem right.

When he made the switch from league to union at the start of the season, he maintained: “My heart’s not here, it’s not for England. My heart is for New Zealand and Samoa and that’s who I’ll be representing.” It would seem that he barely considers himself English and yet he could be walking out for England, or even the Lions, this summer.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s well within his rights to declare his intentions to play for England. But it’s difficult to agree with the rules, and all responsibility lies with those who make them.

Under World Rugby’s current regulations, a player may play for a country’s senior XV if they were born in the country, one of their parents or grandparents was born in the country, or they have lived in the country for 36 consecutive months.

There are several problems with this rule. Primarily, it undermines each country’s rugby development programme. It is possible to represent a country throughout age-grade rugby, including playing for the U20s in the annual World Championships, yet run out for another nation’s senior XV.

There are plenty of examples of where exactly this has happened. Tevita Kuridrani played for Fiji’s U20s before being picked by Australia thanks to the residency rule. Jared Payne represented New Zealand at U21 level but now has 20 caps for Ireland; Italy’s Tommy Allan played for Scotland U20s; and Uini Atonio was born in New Zealand, played for Samoa U20s and now represents France. 

“Elite sporting teams are supposed to represent the best of what that country has to offer. As things stand, international rugby runs risk of becoming indistinguishable from club rugby.”

The U20s are where international teams of the future truly develop and it is the age at which players reach the ‘age of maturity’, according to World Rugby’s regulation. At that age players should be old enough to make an informed decision about which nation they want to represent. Given the increasingly high profile of U20 rugby – it is broadcast globally on Sky Sports, and pulls in decent crowds around the world – it seems ludicrous that players can be poached even after that.

England’s U20 squad in 2011, for example, contained more than a few recognisable names, including Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Joe Launchbury, George Ford, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Jonathan Joseph, and Marland Yarde.

This is the breeding ground of top-class talent. Allowing foreign-bred players to come in after a mere three years, or because their mother’s father was born in the country, undermines this entire system of development and denies those home-grown players the opportunity they deserve.

Another concern is that bringing in foreign players on such loose grounds devalues what it means to represent one’s country in elite sport. Kids grow up dreaming of representing England in whatever their chosen sport may be, and that is part of what makes it so special. There is something inherently patriotic about international sport that it seems wrong to allow this to be diluted by drafting in players from abroad.

In the same vein, a country’s elite sporting teams are supposed to represent the best of what that country has to offer. As things stand, international rugby runs risk of becoming indistinguishable from club rugby, where the teams with the most money draft the best talent. A union as powerful as England could easily exploit the rules, and build a team of young international superstars. What’s the point in having international rugby if it doesn’t reflect the best of what each country has to offer?

Lax regulations also hit the poorest unions most heavily. For years the Pacific islands have been ravaged for their players’ raw talent. For their Test match against England, Fiji’s players received a miserly £400 each compared to their English counterparts, who are paid £22,000 a pop. Nathan Hughes, now of England, has openly spoken about the way that financial opportunities spurred his move away from Fiji. It is unsettling that England are able to deprive Fiji of such great players so easily. Sure, Fiji could have called him up first, but Hughes’s intention had always been to play for England once his three-year residency was complete. 

Australia is another serial ‘exploiter’. Recently, they have given rushed call-ups to Fijian players such as Koroibete and Naiyaravoro to tie them to the Australian Rugby Union, despite only recent switches from league to union. It’s also become common practice for clubs to offer players three-year contracts, with the intention that they can qualify internationally. They are no doubt backed by their national union, and most clubs receive bonuses for the number of ‘home’ international players they produce.  In fact, Glasgow Warriors tried exactly this with Naiyaravoro before he was lured to Australia with the promise of an immediate international call-up.

This is by no means new, and the rules used to allow switching nations during your career but, in the interests of the game globally, the rules need further change. Teams like Fiji, Samoa and Tonga will soon be unable to compete if the trend is allowed to continue.

Interestingly, despite having been one of the worst exploiters of the rule in recent years, the French Rugby Federation announced in December that it would require all French national team players to hold a French passport. This seems to me to be a sensible policy. It captures the essence of national representation, while also recognising the fact that the world is a transient place. People move country regularly and with relative ease in the modern world – elite sportsmen perhaps more than most – and it is possible to change nationality. While the concept of national identity may have been somewhat diluted, there is surely still value in the English rugby team being filled with English citizens. It would be a simple rule: if you have a passport, you can play.

While some unions such as the Irish RFU have stood by their use of the rule to develop ‘project players’ – such as Payne or, most recently, CJ Stander – others, like England’s RFU and France, have signalled that they may impose their own criteria if World Rugby does not act.

They should probably do away with the ‘grandparent’ rule, too. This is too remote a connection, for me, and does not reflect what most people consider to be central to nationality. On the other hand, having at least one parent from a country is usually sufficient to obtain citizenship there.

Finally, something needs to be done about the fact that players such as Denny Solomona, or Ben Te’o, are able to play rugby union for England despite having represented Samoa in rugby league. If players are not allowed to represent different nations within the same sport, it is difficult to see why they should be allowed to do so in different sports. Surely, if you are Samoan for the purposes of rugby league, you are Samoan for the purposes of rugby union. Can you imagine this happening at the Olympics, Mo Farah running out for Great Britain in the 5k but representing Somalia, the country of his birth, in the 10k? A ban on switching nationalities between sports must also be imposed.

World Rugby are considering changes to the eligibility rules, and I propose they introduce the following: a player may play for a country’s senior XV (or their designated second team or sevens side) if they are a citizen of that country, by virtue of birth or otherwise. Any player who has represented a country at U20 level, or above, in any sport, is ‘tied’ to that country and may not play for any other country’s senior XV (or their designated second team or sevens side)

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