What should an athlete do to earn the right to represent the country where they ply their trade? Should eligibility to wear a nation’s colours be determined solely by heritage? Or should there be some flexibility to allow someone to switch allegiances to a country other than their place of birth?
Opinions on these questions have filled gaps in many newspaper pages around they rugby world in recent months. Arguments have been made that ‘protect players’ are pilfered from various parts of the globe and are handed caps that should go to local players. Some are seen as not being good enough to play for their homeland, while others come from lower tier nations who moved to a new country to pursue their career. Either way they are following a path that may lead to an international cap, that is within the rules of the game, and should not be vilified for it.
Earlier this year World Rugby announced that the code’s residency rule will be stretched from three to five years, in a bid to ensure rugby mercenaries are truly committed to a new country, before being handed a cap. That rule change will not come into affect before the next Rugby World Cup, allowing Auckland-born, Connacht star, Bundee Aki made his debut for Ireland against South Africa.
Since being called into the Irish squad, Aki has been at the centre of debate about the residency rule, as CJ Stander was before him. People have been critical of Aki for abandoning any ambition of becoming an All Black, in the pursuit of a profitable career, and what people perceive to be an “easier” route to an international cap.
Yes he has sacrificed the chance of playing for New Zealand, and yes his affiliation with Ireland is linked to his career, but he has chosen to stay in Galway, playing for Connacht, which appears to be a sign of commitment to living and working in Ireland.
But is that commitment enough? Should a player be required to hold citizenship of the country they want to play for? Should players like Aki, Stander and Wallabies winger Henry Speight be asked to renounce their citizenship of their native lands in order to play for Ireland or Australia? Or should eligibility’s to play international rugby be based exclusively on the lottery of birth?
If we decide that your ability to be selected for a team is based solely on who your parents are and where you happened to be born, would that mean a person who moves to a country as a child, but has no ancestral link to that country would not be eligible to represent that nation’s team regardless of how long they lived there?
There didn’t seem to be an issue when Dubliner, Ian McKinley, earned his first cap for Italy on Saturday. McKinley has been living in Italy for several years, and deserves his opportunity to shine on the international stage, having lost the sight in one eye while playing club rugby in Ireland in 2010, which force him to retire. However with the help of protective goggles and an Italian trial, he has been able resurrect his career, and through the residency rule he has qualified to play for his adopted homeland, at the expense of an Italian player.
Scotland international, Tim Visser, is another to benefit from the residency rule. Dutch by birth, Visser would not have been able to ply his trade at the elite level without the controversial rule. It is also questionable whether or not he would have been able to make a living from the game had he not taken his opportunity to play rugby in the UK or France. Without the prospect of playing international rugby for tier one nation, Visser may we’ll have chosen a different career path.
Among the arguments against the residency rule, has been the opinion that international rugby should be about our best against their best, leading to the questions of who “we” are and how do we define “us”.
Many “western” countries celebrate immigrants who have successfully integrated into the local community and felt accepted enough to represent their new home in various different ways, whether by becoming a public representative, serving in the military or playing a sport in that country’s colours. Why are professional rugby players being held to a different standard?
Should the residency rule be extended to include coaches? England, Ireland, Wales and Italy would all have to look for new coaches in that case, and there’d be a lot of out of work Kiwis.
At the end of the day, Rugby is a professional sport and players who accept the opportunity of playing international rugby for a country other than their own are doing so to enhance their career and earning potential, in the same way that people in other professions apply for promotions to improve their careers and increase their income.