Cut the John Bull
June 24, 2011
Kiwi-born Thomas Waldrom was all-smiles as he linked up with England's World Cup training squad last week © Getty Images
England's decision to include a host of foreign-born players in their Rugby World Cup training squad this week may have caused consternation in some quarters but in reality it is a fact of life and has been for a very long time.
Criticism of such a selection policy highlights a lack of understanding of how the international game operates and ignores the success and glory that would not have been achieved without the influence of such players. The International Rugby Board's Regulation 8 demands that any would-be international was either "born" in the country, has a "parent or grandparent " that was born in the country or has "completed thirty six consecutive months of residence". Those are the cold, hard facts that should be remembered by those keen on sentimentality and aggrieved at England's willingness to look beyond a birth certificate for match-winners.
England manager Martin Johnson has been charged with steering his side to the top of the world and quite understandably for someone in such a high-pressure and results-driven business he is utilising the best tools available to him. And he is not alone in exploring such avenues. New Zealand and Australia have long since harvested their Pacific neighbours and France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have also gone down a similar route although the latter's dalliance and subsequent 'Grannygate' headlines left a nasty stain and soured the subject for many.
So-called England supporters determined to bring an emotional element into the argument should remember the steadying hand of South African-born Mike Catt during almost 14 years of distinguished service, Nigerian-born Andrew Harriman leading England to Rugby World Cup Sevens glory in 1993 and, for those with longer memories, the two tries from Russian Prince Alexander Obolensky that propelled England to their first ever victory over New Zealand in 1936.
Quite simply their country of birth is a non-issue in this day and age. The likes of Kiwi-born Thomas Waldrom and Samoan import Manu Tuilagi may not have been born in England but they are eligible to play for their adopted nation and that, along with their outstanding form, is all that Johnson is concerned about.
'England's United Nations Squad' is how one newspaper reported the announcement while other reports delighted in the eight different countries represented in the 45-man party - England, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Kenya, Trinidad, Samoa and Jersey. "They are all English players; they are all qualified to play for England," was Johnson's response. A self-confessed trivia fan, Johnson is no doubt aware that this is a well-trodden path as far as England selectors are concerned - a fact highlighted by our very own historian John Griffiths elsewhere on our site.
England's foreign legion falls into two broad categories - those who were born overseas but relocated as youngsters and those who were products of another country's rugby system and drafted in to fill a supposed talent void. US-born prop Alex Corbisiero, Australian-born scrum-half Joe Simpson and Trinidad-born Delon Armitage are amongst those who came to England as children while Kiwi Dylan Hartley had reached his teens before he moved. Even the traditionalists would find it hard to decry at their inclusion.
Then there are those who were recruited having fulfilled the residency criteria with the aim of making up for a perceived shortcoming within the current playing pool. These rather more controversial additions include South Africans Matt Stevens, Hendre Fourie and Mourtiz Botha and New Zealanders Riki Flutey, Shontayne Hape and Thomas Waldrom - the latter only realising he had an English grandmother and therefore an international lifeline earlier this season.
While you cannot criticise Johnson for exploring such options it does raise questions about the English game. If the national boss is having to tap into talent forged abroad it surely suggests something is going awry on the home front. But one look at the battle for this year's IRB Junior World Championship crown in Italy would suggest all is well within the age-grade ranks.
England will compete for the title of the world's best U20 side for the third time in four years on Sunday and although they are yet to lift the title - their opponents New Zealand have dominated all-comers since 2008 - the evidence is there to suggest that at age-grade level they can compete and beat the rest of the world. There would appear to be more concern for Ireland and Scotland if they, according to reports, are considering their future involvement in that particular competition and at the same time seemingly jeopardise the emergence of the next generation of international stars.
As a result, the focus falls on the club game and specifically English rugby's top flight - the Aviva Premiership. The number of overseas players plying their trade in the Premiership has long been the subject of debate with accusations that the development of English players is being hampered by the clubs' penchant for foreign signings that bring a wealth of talent and fans through the turnstiles. The Rugby Football Union do their best to ensure the stability of that production line by providing financial incentives but are they doing enough if Johnson finds reason to look elsewhere?
The answer from the clubs will be very similar to that of Johnson when pressed on the issue. If you are English and not in the mix at club or international level then it is for one simple reason - you are not good enough. And instead of taking to taking to Twitter to air their grievances, those with Test match rugby aspirations should knuckle down and raise their game.
It would obviously be great for the RFU if they could field a squad of players whose talent for the game was discovered on the country's school fields, nurtured in the rugby academies and polished within the club game but with playing numbers on the slide in the UK it would appear a remote hope. And while it may grate with some if a lineout throw from Hartley, a linebreak from Hape and try from Waldrom lead to World Cup glory - not one of those questioning their inclusion this week will be heard amid the celebrations.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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