Brent Pope: As one of the first foreign players to ever play and live here, I approve of the new residency rule
Read Brent Pope ever week in The Herald
Sometimes timing plays a huge role in sport as well as life, and if Waikato Chiefs outside back James ‘The Finisher’ Lowe has any aspiration to play international rugby for Ireland at some stage, then it seems as if he has committed to Leinster at at exactly the right time.
Just weeks after Lowe put pen to paper for Leinster next season, a ruling from the IRB has increased the term of residency from the existing three years to five. It also hopefully eradicates the use of ‘project players’, a controversial move used by countries to lure players away from the country of origin, Ireland’s C J Stander being a prime example.
Players already in the system, such as Munster’s Kiwi Tyler Blyendaal and, of course, Bundee Aki, are all safe, and it’s presumed Lowe is as long as he commits to Irish rugby as they were already in transition when the law was made.
Aki’s case is well documented, and he is on the cusp of becoming available for Ireland later this year if he so decides. Should Lowe be eligible and serve the three years in Ireland, he will still only be 27 and could potentially look forward to a long enough career in green, provided he is good enough.
In my opinion, and as one of the first foreign rugby players to ever play and live in Ireland, I approve of the new ruling. For years I watched as some of New Zealand’s most promising young players disappear to the likes of Japan or Europe only to reappear as an international player in an alien jersey.
Some embraced it, others did not. For instance, all four starting wings in France’s Test against Australia last autumn were of Fijian origin, while England’s Nathan Hughes and Semesa Rokoduguni have come through the three-year system
A few years ago the rules were so slack that ex-All Black Shane Horwath played for Wales before it was realised that he had no legitimate claim. His so-called Welsh grandmother never existed, and the whole affair was aptly termed ‘Grannygate’.
Howarth was still was capped and paid, something that thousands of other Welsh players would have cherished.
When professional rugby really took hold, the laws became more stringent year by year, but were never perfect. At one stage you could only play professionally in the United Kingdom if you had been an international player within the previous 18 months or so.
The existing three years was, in my opinion, far too little anyway. It really meant just three seasons of rugby and you could be lining up and singing your adopted country’s national anthem like you had been there all your life.
Of course, there have been notable exceptions. Stander has embraced Ireland as his home now and few would begrudge him a new start but for players like Isa Nacewa, who had turned out for Fiji for a just a few minutes years previous, under the laws he was never eligible to play for Ireland.
In many ways he should have been as there has been no more dedicated player in Leinster over the years.
How many Irish coaches would loved to have been able to select the talented Aucklander in their side?
But at least the rule puts some halt to big-spending clubs luring players over with the carrot of potential international play, although criticism will rage that it just means that they will approach them earlier than before.
In recent years French clubs have raided Fijian youth players, bringing them to their club academies. After three years they are no longer deemed a foreign player but a player eligible to be considered a home-based one, and for players living a subsistence lifestyle, the lure is huge.
The ruling will please All Black coach Steve Hansen, as it may stop some of his young prospects, like Lowe, disappearing to foreign shores.
Many young New Zealand players see a host of players ahead of them in the pecking order. They have a desire to play international rugby and decide they have a better chance to do that somewhere else. The signing of James Lowe is such an example.
I am sure that Hansen or part of his coaching team had a quiet word with Lowe but they could not offer him what Leinster could — another culture, good money and after just three years the chance to be a national hero.
Five years is a fair commitment. It shows that you have spent half your average playing life in one country.
During that time you may well have married, even fathered children in your adopted homeland.
It is a fair ruling and a proactive one.