International test matches evoke an immense sense of patriotism among supporters – the pride and unity felt by a nation after a win is remarkable. A country collectively stands to sing their anthem when the choir on TV bellow it out on the pitch. To be called up to represent your country was once the greatest honour for players, but it is sad this may no longer be the case. International rugby has been blighted by a surge in the number of foreign imports playing for all of the tier one teams in recent years, conjuring up a sense of unease among many supporters. Former England scrum-half Austin Healy said earlier this year that the prospect of having an England team with the majority being foreign born, is almost upon us.
At present, players can represent their adopted nation after three years of residency. The eligibility rules are to become more stringent, with three years soon increasing to five. Some players qualify through family ties, but many have no prior connection to their adopted nation other than having represented a club side within its territory. National identity is immaterial and hard to quantify – no-one can tell another how they should feel. But if it continues, the ever-increasing fluidity of players switching allegiance without solid ties to their new nation may make supporters become disillusioned with elite level rugby.
It appears that players not capable of getting into their own national teams, look at the lax residency rule as a means of fulfilling their professional ambitions of playing international rugby. Ben Te’o, Nathan Hughes, C.J. Stander, the list is endless. While their commitment to their new nations is unquestionable and professional desire to play at the highest level is understandable, World Rugby should put measures in place to stem this flow.
Players now realise they can get an opportunity elsewhere if the path to the first team of their own nation is blocked by others in front of them, or if they’re not on the selectors radar – making a mockery of the international game. The Pacific Islands has become a breeding ground for European, Australian and Kiwi hunters sniffing around their cream of the crop, ready to haul any talent overseas and sign them up with professional academies. With the £25,000 match fee on offer for representing England, it is obvious why many turn their backs and give up on their dream of representing their own nation, for a chance to cash in during a short career.
In England’s final autumn international against Australia last month, the Red Roses had eight men in their match day squad born abroad, while the men in green and gold had seven among their ranks. Coaches will understandably select the best players available to them in order to build the strongest squad possible, and if this means picking foreign-born players, then it is logical for them to do so.
Ideally, we’d have 15 Englishmen born and bred running out at HQ, but in the 21st century, this is unrealistic. While birthplace should not be used as the sole indicator of a person’s nationality, and does paint the whole picture, it does go some way to demonstrating the problem World Rugby faces. Playing for your adopted country cannot induce the same sense of satisfaction and fulfilment that playing for your country of birth or that you identify with would do.
Sceptics would argue loyalty among players at club level is now non-existence, those who believe loyalty is evident, admit it is diminishing. Clubs are employers, and players will join clubs offering the greatest financial packages, and with the most chance of delivering success. But at national level fans like to believe there is a lingering sense of romanticism, that players ‘feel the shirt’ and the weight of a nation on their shoulders, that playing for your country means more to players than merely helping pay the bills. But it is clear many switch allegiance in order to maximise their earning potential during a short career span. For a kiwi who has dreamt of running out for New Zealand, performing the Haka and wearing the sliver fearn with pride, wearing the red rose on your chest while singing in support of England’s Queen would surely make you feel fraudulent?
Eden Park in Auckland, prior to the Lions 1st test v NZ, June 2017.