Sport Rugby

Tuesday 20 March 2018

'If you have an Irish passport, you're Irish' - Luke Fitzgerald and Jake Heenan on IRFU 'project players'

Luke Fitzgerald was a big critic of the three-year residency rule. Bundee Aki (inset) is expected to be named in the Ireland squad today after becoming Irish qualified
Luke Fitzgerald was a big critic of the three-year residency rule. Bundee Aki (inset) is expected to be named in the Ireland squad today after becoming Irish qualified Newsdesk Newsdesk

Former Leinster and Ireland star Luke Fitzgerald and Connacht's Irish-qualified flanker Jake Heenan engaged in a very interesting debate on 'project players' in world rugby.

Earlier this year the World Rugby Council voted to extend the residency requirements from three years to five years but the new rule won't come into effect until 31 December 2020.

It means that only project players signed this season, as well as project players currently plying their trade away from home, will still be able to qualify under the old three year residency rule.

Connacht's Bundee Aki is expected to be named in Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad later today while his provincial teammate Tom McCartney and Ulster prop Wiehahn Herbst but it remains to be seen whether or not they are selected.

Munster flyhalf Tyler Bleyendaal is qualified in January.

Fitzgerald was an outspoken critic of the three-year residency rule.

"My view is that world rugby was diluting itself too much. You really damage the game here. Like Garry Ringrose could be coming through the setup here since he was 16-17 and Bundee Aki could be in the team ahead of him," he told's rugby podcast, The Left Wing.

"It's not the players' fault, if the opportunity is given to them to play international rugby, everyone wants to play international. Jared Payne couldn't give any more in an Irish jersey. He puts his body on the line every time. CJ Stander as well.

"My issue was with the IRB (now World Rugby) at the time. I think they have rectified that. I think three years isn't enough.

"We have small playing numbers here, Scotland have small playing numbers and if I was coming through the academy since I was 15 years old and someone comes in who has no connection to the island, has no family here and comes in for three years and all of a sudden takes my place... I think it devalues playing for your country.

"We're trying to make this a worldwide game and I see what goes on in the Pacific Islands and I know they have lots of family in New Zealand and Australia, but what I do think happens there is said for the game. I think we're missing three real powerhouses.

"It's on the rest of us to bring countries like that on and I think it's on us, certainly not to close our doors to people who come in and adding value and becoming part of the setup and feeling Irish, we don't want to shut that off to anyone.

"That's not the idea but the idea is not to make it a three year thing.

"People are not sure whether they are going to take a contract in France because I might play for Ireland and it becomes a money thing. Apart from protecting young guys coming up through the system with our small playing numbers, you want to keep people interested.

"They are the key issues."

Heenan admitted that the playing professional rugby was the primary motive behind his move.

"For me, I was 21 without a full professional contract and this was an opportunity for me to play professional rugby and I kind of avoided the international thing especially in the media.

"To be the best player in the world for me was to be playing against the best players in the world on the biggest stage.

"International rugby was definitely that for me and there was an opportunity in Ireland to do that.

"I agree with a lot of what you're saying."

Jake then posed a question to Luke: "What is your opinion if a player is Irish-qualified through a parent of grandparent but has spent no time in the country or might spend six months in the country and then plays for the country like Hugh Blake as opposed to someone like me or Bundee or CJ who did the three years?"

Fitzgerald backed up his point by saying that if you are in a country long enough to obtain a passport, then you should be allowed to compete for that country.

"It's a really difficult question to answer. If I was in a Scottish jersey I would be really disappointed if someone who came in and hasn't been in the system.

"I suppose if you have an Irish passport, you are Irish and it takes five years to get a passport here and I would think if you have a passport you are able to play.

"It shouldn't be shorter than the time it takes you to get a passport.

"It's a protectionist point of view."

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Subscribe to The Left Wing,'s Rugby podcast, with Luke Fitzgerald and Will Slattery for the best discussion and analysis each week. From in depth interviews with some of Irish rugby's biggest stars to unmatched insights into the provinces and the national team, The Left Wing has all your rugby needs covered.

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