Wednesday 26 October 2016

Conor O'Shea: You shouldn't play for a nation just because it is professionally convenient

Conor O'Shea

Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30

Nathan Hughes has declared his intention to play for England in the future
Nathan Hughes has declared his intention to play for England in the future

Nathan Hughes, the Wasps number eight, has taken the Aviva Premiership by storm, his rampaging runs bringing a different dimension to his team.

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Hughes was relatively unknown when he arrived from New Zealand a couple of seasons ago, but he is now spoken of as a potential England number eight once he has qualified through residency.

Therein lies the issue that World Rugby and each national union must come to terms with. In a recent interview, Hughes said he would be supporting Fiji against England when the two sides meet at Twickenham in the World Cup, but long term he would love to play for England. How does that make you feel? I know it makes me feel distinctly uncomfortable because to me it is just plain wrong.

There is a lot of talk about changing the rules because the sport doesn't want players, or indeed unions, looking abroad to strengthen their national side. But to me it is pretty straightforward: a national team should be representative of a country's strength and should be populated by players whose dream it was to play for that country from birth. Before people jump down my throat, I do not begrudge the players who have taken advantage of the residency rule and who are playing for their adoptive countries: they are the rules and you play to those rules.

Coaches and unions are paid to get results and you will look to strengthen within the rules you play to, as do your opposition. I simply think that the eligibility rule is one of the many things that needs to be tightened to stop country-hopping and teams pillaging poorer unions, or indeed players who can't make it in one country looking to play for another.

There are plenty of scenarios been mooted at the moment, including changing the rule around eligibility, for instance involving a grandparent. If a player is born and lives in one country, but has a grandparent from a different country, he can play for the country of his grandparent's birth.

There is a view that this should be changed so that you can only play for a parent's native country. A measure such as that would not take account of the world we live in, one in which people emigrate to work and to look after their family but never stop loving the country of their birth.

Often, their children and their children's children are brought up with that in mind. They may speak with a different accent but they are as passionate as you or I about Ireland. Kevin Maggs is a close friend of mine and never gave anything but his all for the Irish jersey. Without the grandparent's rule, Kevin would never have played for Ireland and his grandmother would never have had the joy of watching her grandson play for her country.

World Rugby needs to sort out eligibility by residency not parentage - that should be their focus. In a game becoming more and more professional, we need to ensure that players are not playing for a country because it is professionally convenient.

Look at Pool B at the World Cup. The likely decider for best runner-up will be between Samoa and Scotland. Scotland's pack will be bolstered by WP Nel, a South African 'project player' who will by then be eligible. He was specifically targeted by Scotland - and there is nothing wrong with that at all, they are the rules.

The problem is on the other side. Samoa won't have Census Johnston because the giant Toulouse prop has retired to focus on club rugby, where he is well paid. The Samoan culture is all about family and the big man will have made his decision on that basis. But what is right in all of that?

So when we watch this autumn, will we be watching the best a country can produce or will we be watching teams who are supplemented with project players? We will support our team no matter what and all players on show will have done so abiding by the rules, but I think those rules need changing. Even if does mean your side is weakened, it will mean teams are a true representation of their country.

The countries that would benefit most in all of this would be the Pacific Island nations. The joke many years ago when Wales lost to what was then Western Samoa in the World Cup was, can you imagine what would have happened if they had played the whole of Samoa? Now the question could be asked, what would it be like if the whole of Samoa did play together?

I started with Nathan Hughes and will finish with him. The man who will be supporting Fiji against England this autumn should not be playing for England against Fiji next autumn. Over to you World Rugby.

Sunday Indo Sport

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