Monday 22 July 2019

Not players' job to tackle residency rules - Cave

Ulster’s Darren Cave believes that overseas players who declare for Ireland can help to raise the standard in the domestic game
Ulster’s Darren Cave believes that overseas players who declare for Ireland can help to raise the standard in the domestic game
David Kelly

David Kelly

There are feathers being ruffled globally as the sport prepares to tackle the perennially thorny issue of international eligibility and, specifically, the issue of whether the three years required to switch allegiance is fit for purpose.

World Rugby is bracing itself for a change in residency rules for international qualification which could alter the way the Irish game goes about the business of recruiting so many of its overseas players.

There are a myriad of factors and circumstances that have forced the governing body's hand and the wider scrutiny on the World Cup later this year will cast a searing spotlight on many of them.

The absent Fijian who can also qualify for Samoa but who wants to declare for England.

The New Zealanders who will not be playing for their own country but those of other nations (as 71 did in the 2011 tournament and as Ireland's Jared Payne will this year) and those who could have played for other nations but who will play for New Zealand.

It will be easier to identify the countries where all the players represent the country of their birth rather than those that don't.

Of course, nobody would argue that national eligibility in an already limited global participation sport be restricted to birth alone; in that case, San Diego-born Ronan O'Gara would have had to take up Eddie O'Sullivan's 1999 World Cup offer.

The course of Irish rugby history could have been so very different; so too if Jamie Heaslip had been forced to align with Israel or Malcolm O'Kelly with England.

However, it is the third strand of the eligibility law that has the sport in a tickle, namely that a previously uncapped player can play for any country once "he has completed 36 consecutive months of residence immediately preceding the time of playing".

Many would like to see this increased to, say, five years. O'Gara is on record as declaring it should be ten years - "Three years is way too little. Even five is too little. Seven isn't enough either. It has to be ten. Non-negotiable. Deal or no deal."


In his book, O'Gara referenced the case of South African CJ Stander, the Munster back-row forward who will qualify for Ireland later this year, archly musing "since when has Ireland become second best?"

A player can play for Ireland before they even become a citizen. O'Gara's argument is that "we risk losing our identity".

It is a delicate debate and, like all delicate debates in this country, risks being personalised, as Payne has already discovered to his cost.

Ireland coaches and their IRFU bosses play by the rules as they are; when All Blacks coach Steve Hansen railed against Connacht's purchase of Bundee Aki, Joe Schmidt was diplomatic in the extreme. "That's a question for people over and above me," he said last year.

His captain, Paul O'Connell, was more expansive and persuasive.

"I can understand why people would have an issue with it, with guys taking maybe an Irish player's place but as long as it is kept to a minimum and they are really top-class players and guys of top-class character, I don't have a problem with it."

Darren Cave is one such player who might have felt discommoded by the arrival of Payne, in particular, and his opinion demands a hearing.

"As a player you know the rules and play by them," he says.

"I do know that if somebody comes over to a country, buys into the ethos and chooses to play for another country, the country should be honoured to have that player if they want to play for them.

"Jared is probably one of the best backs I've ever played with. To think he doesn't consider himself good enough to play for New Zealand makes me wonder how good the New Zealand players are to be honest with you," he adds.

"He's decided he wanted to play for Ireland and as an Irishman I take that as a compliment.

"It raises the standard, he raises the standard of my play, we make each other better players.

"It's not like spinning a globe and pointing a finger. You still have to come over and buy into it for three years."

The consistent argument has been if a "project player" from another country is better than a native player, so be it; Steven Sykes and others failed their auditions miserably but some argue they should never have had one in the first place.


Complicating the global debate is player movement from the cash-poor south to north which floods leagues with non-nationals which forces countries to "buy" in players.

It is a vicious, and not always virtuous, circle.

The rules may be broken but players should not be blamed for not fixing them; that is World Rugby's job and it will take more than eligibility rule changes to alter the complex financial imbalances in the game.

"It's not my position so say whether it should be longer," Cave pleads.

"My job is to play with the players I play with."

Irish Independent

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