Wednesday 26 July 2017

The 10 best 'project players' under rugby's controversial three-year residency rule

Jack O'Toole

The World Rugby Council voted to extend international rugby's residency requirements from three years to five years on Wednesday, when the sport's global governing body met in Kyoto to approve the recommended extension at a council meeting ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup draw.

World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot has been the driving force behind the residency rule's change from three years to five years, with his native Argentina often not possessing the resources to lure uncapped players away from their native countries and towards the Pumas.

The new five-year qualification might eventually put an end to international rugby's arms race, however, the new initiative will not come into effect until 2020, when the global calendar is re-structured.

This means that players like Connacht's Bundee Aki, Munster's Tyler Bleyendaal and Sale Sharks' Denny Solomona will all be eligible to play for their adopted nations of Ireland and England should they be called upon.

Ireland, like many of their Six Nations counterparts, have fully availed of the residency rules lenience with Jared Payne, CJ Stander, Richardt Strauss and Quinn Roux all qualifying for Joe Schmidt's side over the last few years under the controversial rule.

In light of the monumental change to rugby's international eligibility laws, we've decided to look at the top 10 players who have availed of the three-year residency rule. However, the list excludes players like Billy Vunipola, Manu Tuilagi and Joey Carbery, who attained their international eligibility before they finished their schooling in their adopted nations.

10. Henry Speight

Speight is just one of many players in the current Wallabies squad born outside of Australian shores, with the Fijian native having to wait until the Wallabies 2014 end-of-year tour before he could make his international debut against Ireland.

The Brumbies winger may have only one test try to his name from 11 international starts, but with 32 tries in 87 appearances in Super Rugby, it's only a matter of time before he starts crossing the chalk for the Wallabies.

9. Tim Visser

Born in in Zeewolde, a town in the Flevoland province in the central Netherlands, Visser joined the Newcastle Falcons Academy as a teenager after he was spotted playing at the Amsterdam Sevens.

He made his competitive debut with the Falcons in 2006 and spent three seasons on Tyneside before moving to Edinburgh in 2010.

The Dutch winger then became eligible for Scotland in June 2012, and made his international debut against Fiji on 16 June scoring two tries in a 37–25 win.

The 29-year-old would go on to score a further nine tries for the Scots in what has been a very successful spell for both Visser and his adopted country.

8. Riki Flutey

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4 July 2009; British and Irish Lions' players Shane Williams, left, and Riki Flutey celebrate their side's victory. 3rd Test, South Africa v British and Irish Lions, Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa. Picture credit: Andrew Fosker / SPORTSFILE

The former Hurricanes inside back qualified for England at the beginning of the 2008/09 season after impressing then coach Martin Johnson with his club side London Wasps, where he was named the 2007/2008 Premiership Player of the Year at the PRA awards.

After making his international debut against the Pacific Islanders at Twickenham in November 2008, Flutey became a mainstay in the England team that season starting all five games during the 2009 Six Nations.

His strong performances in that tournament were rewarded with a call up to the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa where he started the third test against the Springboks in Johannesburg.

7. Bernard Le Roux

Racing flanker Le Roux has been one of the many South African's pillaged by French rugby over the last five years with honourable mentions on this list also going out to ever-gallic compatriots Scott Spedding and Rory Kockott.

Le Roux was due to sign with defending Super Rugby champions the Lions in 2009, however, the night before he was about to sign for the Johannesburg based outfit he had a change of heart and instead signed a short-term contract with Racing.

Le Roux signed a three-year contract with the Parisian club, who he remains with today, before going on to win 26 caps for Les Blues after making his international debut against the All Blacks on France's 2013 tour of New Zealand.

6. Uini Atonio

The New Zealand prop has developed into one of the premier front-row ball carriers in all of world rugby after signing for Top 14 leaders La Rochelle from New Zealand provincial rugby in 2011.

At 6'5, 24 stone, it's needles to say that Atonio is a menacing figure in the French front-row, and at 27-years-old, the Kiwi prop still has a lot of his best rugby ahead of him.

5. Virimi Vakatawa

Vakatawa entered international rugby last year with some massive expectations following a couple of stellar seasons on the sevens circuit with France.

The Fijian flier has largely lived up to those expectations, with six tries in his first 12 starts for Les Blues, and he has a very bright future ahead of him in both international rugby and the sevens game.

4. WP Nel

After signing with Edinburgh in 2012, following three years with the Cheetahs in Super Rugby, Nel said that not only would he declare for Soctland, but that he would also turn down a call by his native South Africa if it was offered.

The Springboks loss has very much been Scotland's gain however with Nel establishing himself as one of the best tighthead prop's in Europe.

Unforutnately the 31-year-old's neck injury ruled him out of the Six Nations this season, which was a big loss to Vern Cotter's Scotland and potentially an even bigger loss to Warren Gatland's Lions.

3. Jared Payne

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A consummate professional and a prudent investment from both Ulster and the IRFU.

After establishing himself as a reliable utility at both the Crusaders and Blues, Payne joined Ulster in 2011 and quickly established himself as one of the province's best attacking players.

After making his international debut against South Africa in 2014, Payne has cemented himself as one of Joe Schmidt's first-choice backs, with the 31-year-old proving to be a calming influence outside burgeoning midfield partner Robbie Henshaw.

A kidney injury plagued most of his Six Nations campaign this season, but Payne has undoubtedly been one of the big beneficiaries of the IRFU's project player scheme.

2. Malakai Fekitoa

New Zealand are often heavily persecuted for their supposed pillaging of the Pacific Island nations, however, a lot of their foreign born players, including former captain Tana Umaga, are often educated in the country before they are then fast tracked into Super Rugby sides and eventually the All Blacks.

Technically, Fekitoa did spend a year in Auckland's Wesley College on a rugby scholarship, however, he also had to spend three years in New Zealand post-education before he was able to declare his international eligibility to the All Blacks.

After a breakout season with the Highlanders in 2014, Fekitoa was a no-brain selection in Steve Hansen's squad for the June 2014 test series against England, with the Tongan native making  his All Blacks debut as a second-half substitute for Ma'a Nonu in the first test of that series.

Fekitoa has quickly gone on to establish himself as a mainstay in the All Blacks midfield, making 23 appearances in just under 30 months of test rugby, however, with Anton Lienert-Brown and Ryan Crotty both hovering around the national setup, he will face stern competition to add to that number moving forward.

1. CJ Stander

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Look up the word 'consistent' in the dictionary and you'll find the word 'consistent', but it really should be accompanied by a picture of CJ Stander. However, if you actually search 'residency rule' on Google you'll find real pictures of Stander.

He is, literally, the poster boy for the rule and deservedly so. The South African number eight has cemented himself as one of the best backrowers in world rugby over the last two seasons with a string of impressive displays for both Munster and Ireland.

The 27-year-old is as polarising as it gets when it comes to the residency rule, as in one sense, he epitomises everything that is wrong with the loophole, in that he is jettisoned into an international team at the direct expense of a player from that nation who is more than capable at the position in which he has been succeeded, i.e. Peter O'Mahony.

While in another sense, Stander is an exemplary example of how to integrate yourself into a foreign country and how to ingratiate yourself to the people of that country.

In a country in Ireland where it is increasingly common to see Irish athletes, or those with Irish grandmothers, not sing the national anthem, Stander, a born and bred South African, sat in a room with Munster teammates Donncha Ryan and James Cronin for hours until he was able to memorise and successfully relay Amhrán na bhFiann.

A player's pride for their country, and indeed their sense of national identity is in no way elevated by whether they choose to sing the national anthem or not, however, in Stander's case, learning Amhrán na bhFiann was certainly symbolic in that it demonstrated his desire to prove that he was not just playing for the Irish team as some sort of backdoor into international rugby.

Stander has certainly been a great asset to Irish Rugby, and an iconic figure in Munster, but as a former Springbok U20 captain, you can't help but feel that he dreamt of putting on a different green jersey growing up in George, South Africa. Thankfully dreams like Stander's will not be as frequently altered from 2020 onwards.

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