Thursday 22 February 2018

Brendan Fanning: Change in eligibility rules would restore integrity to Test rugby

Ireland is bidding to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Photo: PA Wire
Ireland is bidding to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Photo: PA Wire
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The next few weeks will tick off a few important dates on the rugby calendar, for the medium and long term. On June 1, the bidding countries for the 2023 World Cup - of which Ireland is one, along with France and South Africa - must have their pitches submitted. And before that, in Kyoto on Wednesday, comes the pool draw for Japan 2019. Both decisions have bells and whistles attached, so there will be colour and noise.

But there is another box to be ticked, and it goes far closer to the heart of rugby than the host country for RWC 2023, or who will be playing where and when in Japan 2019.

For a good few members of the World Rugby council the question of national eligibility will dominate the agenda this week. It is awkward because in the professional era what was once straightforward - who you could pick to play for your country - has become an exercise in selecting candidates from a transit lounge. Three years playing club rugby wherever you like, and at the end of that wait, provided you are uncapped anywhere else, you can play for your new country of residence. Simple as that.

Argentina's Gus Pichot, vice president of World Rugby, is leading the charge to have this changed to a meaningful system: a minimum of five years to qualify. His position on the subject is clear-cut, and we agree with pretty much all of it.

He recognises that what obtains currently favours the strong over the weak in a way that warps the natural order. So if you are a talented Pacific Islander who leaves to earn a crust in Super rugby, or in the northern hemisphere club game, you can abandon your homeland altogether and hitch your wagon to the international game as well.

In Europe, the biggest nations - England and France - also have the most clubs and the deepest pockets. So they get stronger. This not only skews the balance more in their favour, it also blocks the road for their indigenous players, which undermines the idea of coming through your own system to represent your own country.

And it weakens the power of the international game itself. You'd need to have been in a torpor not to recognise the subtext to the power struggle that saw, in the last few years, the demise of ERC and the arrival of its replacement, EPCR. Sure enough it was followed by calls to squeeze the Six Nations into a smaller window so as to make more room for the club game.

If you are one of the new breed of benefactor propping up the club game in England and France then you will see Test rugby as an interference to your business. The weaker that international game becomes the easier it is to shuffle it off to the side. And the more transient players we have adopting new countries then the harder it is to distinguish one tier from the other.

In this country we have benefited handsomely from the light touch that regulates this area. Of those who have recently emerged from the transit lounge, Richardt Strauss, Jared Payne and CJ Stander have all been real additions on the field, as they have been to their provinces. That none of them is Irish seems a mere technicality.

And it's wrong. The chances of this being righted on Wednesday seem pretty good. It will help the cause if Ireland row in behind it, as they now seem prepared to do. On the record their position to this point has been that they'd be happy with whatever fell out of the sky, but now they seem happier than ever with the prospect of stretching the incubation period to five years. Interesting, that.

Given where we are at with the pitch for the World Cup, it would be remarkable if Ireland's position wasn't one that could be influenced by the promise of votes supporting us for that tournament. That's the way the world turns. If the next little revolution restores some integrity to Test rugby then it will be a welcome move.

Sunday Indo Sport

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