The news last week that World Rugby – governing body that runs the sport of rugby union globally – will amend the eligibility rules and allow its international players to switch and represent another country is a welcome development.
“World Rugby amends rule and allows players to switch national teams” – Guardian 2021
This move by World Rugby is another example of how rugby union continues to modernise the sport in ways that other major sports could learn from or take too long to replicate in some form.
The rule changes by World Rugby means that from January 2022 a rugby union player will now be able to play for a different country after a period of three years in not representing the former country.
In other words, rugby union players can move to play for a nation of their birth their parents’ or grandparents’ birth, but can only switch such commitment just the once.
The biggest beneficiaries of this radical change by World Rugby are male players currently playing for the bigger spending rugby nations such as England, France, Australia and New Zealand but who have ancestral ties to the traditional Pacific island rugby union nations such as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
But international rugby players from those big spending rugby nations with Caribbean and African roots will also benefit in the long term; as countries from those weaker rugby union regions continue to develop their international profile especially in the seven a side format.
For years some of the top players from the Pacific islands headed to play domestic rugby in the lucrative professional leagues in England and France. Some stayed long enough to earn call ups to play for England where again the playing fees is just astronomical compared to playing for in Australasia.
During the men’s 6 nations championship earlier this year, for the 5 matches played by England each member of that 28-man squad earned £75,000 each.
In 2017 when England played home to Samoa the Pacific island players were paid £650 each compared to their host who were paid £22,000 each.
So you can see why any Pacific islander player without any international caps but playing in the English Premiership would opt to play for England in the first place if the opportunity arises.
The move by World Rugby thus would reset such imbalance and give those England players a chance to eventually play for their Pacific island home nations and other emerging rugby countries.
What I would love see now is for other sporting governing bodies to follow World Rugby’s lead and allow players in their sport to switch allegiances as well.
The sports that come to mind mostly is football followed by cricket and athletics. There is some leeway for switching allegiances in say athletics and cricket but it is not as clear cut as the changes being put forward by World Rugby.
For too long in European football the bigger sporting nations have used their spending power to entice young footballers from developing countries to play in their domestic league only to then transition them for their country. Yet knowing full well this is a short-term measure to prevent them from playing for their country of birth.
In football we have heard the stories from Europe where players have been deliberately recruited for just the 1 or 2 meaningless international games in order to the prevent them from playing for lower ranked nations of their ancestry.
Some European national football administrations and clubs take a dim view of those locally based players who are of African and Caribbean descent and have declared any interest to play for the country of their ancestry or birth.
FIFA – football’s governing body – should follow World Rugby’s example. For one thing such a would create a lot of buzz and speculation and give the emerging nations a real boost to their development.
So from a Jamaican perspective it would be fascinating if we saw Manchester City striker Raheem Sterling – when in his veteran stage – had that chance to switch from England for the country of his early life?
I can imagine if footballer John Barnes in his pomp (1980s/90s) had the chance to switch from England to Jamaica he would have done so. The number of African nations who could benefit from football players in Europe swapping their loyalties is endless.
In cricket the likes of England have benefited from “developing” players from nations such as the West Indies and South Africa. England would then transitioning these young players into playing for them on the international stage. But then we have seen where some players have been discarded after a few matches and their short-lived international career is done.
Good move World Rugby. The FIFA and their likes can learn from this.