Do eligibility rules need revising?
November 8, 2012
South Africa-born hooker Richardt Strauss is set for his Ireland debut on Saturday © PA Photos
Ireland's selection of South African-born hooker Richardt Strauss and New Zealand-born prop Michael Bent has re-opened the Test rugby eligibility debate.
Players can currently qualify for a Test side through the country of their birth, the nationality of their parents or grandparents or by living in their adopted country for three years. Strauss qualifies on residency grounds while Bradley will be grateful to his grandmother but have the International Rugby Board got it right? Tackling Rugby asks whether the controversial criteria need reviewing.
ESPNscrum senior editor Graham Jenkins argues that the IRB need to revise their rules:
Fresh from trying to explain the world rankings battle, the International Rugby Board may soon be forced to provide a little more clarity when it comes to the eligibility criteria for Test match rugby.
The eligibility debate has been re-opened following Ireland's decision to hand South African-born hooker Richardt Strauss a starting berth and New Zealand-born prop Michael Bent a place on the bench for their clash with South Africa on Saturday. The duo have taken differing routes into the Test side - both of which demand scrutiny and beg the question - have the IRB got it right?
Strauss makes the step up having completed the "thirty six consecutive months of residence" demanded by the IRB's Regulation 8. He will become only the second player to represent Ireland through the residency rule following New Zealander Kurt McQuilkin's brief international career in the 1990s.
You cannot question Ireland coach Declan Kidney's decision to select Strauss as only a fool would disregard such talented players at his disposal. But you can query a set-up that allows him to call on a player who has no blood tie to the country and one who has previously represented the country of his birth - albeit at the U19 World Cup.
Strauss was identified as a 'special project' three years ago with officials confident he would be a welcome addition to the Ireland set-up. That was a bold call to make and they are not the only nation to adopt such a policy with the likes of Scotland happy to leverage the system the same way.
But it is in danger of getting out of control and is yet another way for the richer nations to wield their power and influence at the expense of the 'lesser' nations. The likes of Fiji and Georgia may also suffer from limited talent pools but they will not be able to identify and recruit talent from elsewhere - they will be forced to develop from within.
It will have required a significant investment to get Strauss to this point and while his subsequent promotion may prove to have been inspired, there is no doubting it has come at a cost to his Irish-born rivals such as Sean Cronin, Mike Sherry and Damien Varley. And surely given the three-year timeframe, could the Irish Rugby Football Union not have identified some home grown talent to nurture and who would arguably offer a longer shelf life than Strauss?
The inclusion of Bent is a little more palatable given his Irish heritage - his grandmother on his mother's side was born in Ireland - but the express nature of his call-up is stunning. The former Hurricanes and Taranaki prop found himself training with the Ireland squad just a week after his arrival in the country before he had even linked up with his new provincial team-mates at Leinster. A further week later and he is on course to make his international bow.
Neither scenario sits well and does not reflect well on the game as a whole. An extension to the residency rule to at least five years and a minimum requirement of one season in your adopted country if you qualify on blood lines would surely be a start?
ESPNscrum assistant editor Tom Hamilton claims that the current rules will benefit countries in the long-term:
Michael Bent and Richardt Strauss' call-up to the Ireland national side provoked a mixed response from around the rugby globe to say the least. Bent is yet to play in Ireland for a province while Strauss has been turning out in the emerald isle for the past three seasons at Leinster. Calling up these players will not please the most die-hard of Ireland supporters nor rugby purists, but it is a necessity of the modern game.
Saracens' Ernst Joubert appears to be on England's radar after qualifying for residency at the end of June while the national side are not averse to picking southern hemisphere-born players who are available for selection due to English relatives with Thomas Waldrom one such example. His experience of turning out for the Crusaders and playing week-in-week-out against the best the southern hemisphere will only benefit England when they travel to the Highveld or the imposing conditions of somewhere like Dunedin. And aspiring back-rowers will also benefit from his nous and insight.
While Waldrom had turned out a number of times for Leicester when he was called up, Bent has come into the Ireland squad fresh off the back of the ITM Cup and is yet to play in Ireland for his new side Leinster. It is clearly a controversial decision to fast-track him into the international reckoning, but needs must. Ireland boss Declan Kidney defended the decision saying: "I respect the fact that people will have their views on all that, but our job is to put the best team out for Ireland. Them's the rules. Everybody is doing it."
And that's the crux of the argument. Rugby is becoming an ever more commercial game with the riches on offer from sponsors and lucrative television deals putting pressure on the national sides to succeed. New Zealand benefit from plucking the best players the Pacific Islands have to offer while South Africa are light years ahead of most rugby nations with their superb grass roots programme as shown through the incredible quality of their college games. The home Unions are still attempting to hang on to their coat tails.
It's a results business and there's no room for sentimentality on the international scene. Take cricket's example - England have benefited from their hoards of players with South African heritage. On the rugby scene, Scotland are now putting in similar building blocks by recruiting players such as Josh Strauss and WP Nel with one eye on the 2015 World Cup with the duo qualifying for residency in time to pull on the blue shirt in the global gathering. Their talent pool consists of two prominent sides - Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh - so you can forgive them for looking at other options.
It has taken a while for rugby to catch up and while there might be a disgruntled front-rower sitting in Munster watching Saturdays' match between Ireland and South Africa, if Bent scores the match-winning try then there will be few people grumbling at his inclusion.
As long as the rules remain as they are, then countries should embrace them to their fullness. It is now up to the International Rugby Board to deem whether three years is too short a period for players to qualify for residency, but regardless of whether they extend that spell, the home Unions should and will continue to reap the benefits of the current regulations on residency.
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