Three problems with the new IRB eligibility requirements

Three problems with the new IRB eligibility requirements

Three problems with the new IRB eligibility requirements

The IRB has done it again. It ignores the need to streamline a global season, despite almost all rugby stakeholders wanting one. It refuses to regulate the player drain, whereby rugby communities in the Southern Hemisphere become factories churning out product for cashed-up European clubs, who consequently have little incentive to develop local talent. And it turns a blind eye to the ever-increasing amount of rugby played each year, guaranteeing high rates of player attrition, shorter careers, and cheapened contests.

Deciding for once to trade inertia for action, the IRB has altered the one core rule underpinning international rugby eligibility requirements: that at a senior level, players who play for one country can only thereafter play for that country.

In 2013, the IRB altered its Regulation 8 governing international eligibility, so as to broaden the strength of the Sevens competition at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The new Regulation 8 stipulates that any player that has not played test rugby for eighteen months and qualifies for the another country via his passport can compete at the Olympic Games so long as he has played in an Olympic qualifying event (ie. a Sevens World Series competition) beforehand. The lag time will be three years, rather than eighteen months, for future Olympic Sevens events.

Brumbies vs Waratahs 2ndHalf _0003_2014_03_15_10342

Henry Speight – Still waiting to be eligible for the Wallabies

So far so good. The aim is clear enough: to allow Pacific Islanders who have played for New Zealand or Australia to represent their original countries at the Olympics. Few complaints; after all, the Pacific Islander rugby communities get the shaft in almost every dynamic of the international rugby market. However, the Regulation also stipulates that any player making a switch to a new country would then be prevented from playing for the original country for eighteen months thereafter. This loophole in the IRB eligibility requirements would therefore by default make that player eligible for the new country in full internationals thereafter, including at the 2015 World Cup.

Needless to say, the lawyers at the IRB should be hung out to dry. The organisation has been scrambling to cover up its massive stuff up, publicly confirming that the IRB eligibility requirements loophole won’t be closed: “The Regulation 8 exemption governing eligibility for the Rio Olympics was approved by the IRB in 2013 and applies with a stand down period of 18 months. Any player making the switch would then be tied to that country.”

Three major problems in these IRB eligibility requirements arise.

More player drain

The first is that the new regime allows players who have chased the money overseas and abandoned other countries’ investment in their rugby futures to have the best of both worlds. They can return to international rugby elsewhere and on their own terms. This includes not only veterans with long international careers, like Sitiveni Sivivatu and Joe Rokocoko (both Fijian passport holders), but also guys who played only a few tests and left to chase big European contracts, like Isaia Toeava and Rudi Wulf (Samoa) and Sitaleki Timani (Tonga).

S Timani charge (Large) copy

Sitaleki Timani playing for the Waratahs

In other words, the new Regulation 8 will help further facilitate the player drain to the northern hemisphere, the biggest long-term structural problem in international rugby at the moment. Leading players will be able to have their cake and eat it too, at the cost of the integrity of international rugby and those investing in developing young players across the globe. It won’t be a good look if after a squillion tests for Australia, including two Lions tours, George Smith turns out for Tonga at the next World Cup at the expense of young local talent.

The switcheroo

The second problem is that the new Regulation 8, designed specifically for Rio, in fact makes it all too easy to use Sevens as a ruse to make switches of nationality entirely intended for international rugby. Players don’t need to make the final Sevens squad for Rio to achieve a nationality switch. All they need to do is compete at one single qualifying event.

Sita Timani is pretty unlikely to have the skillset to be chosen for the Tongan team at Rio, presuming Tonga qualifies (a big if). But in a normal 12-man Sevens squad, big Sita could run on for Tonga for a minute or two in a dead rubber match in a preceding qualifying tournament and then turn out for them at the 2015 World Cup. Such a situation would be little short of a farce, with Timani having turned his back on a Wallaby career barely two years before.


The third problem in these IRB eligibility requirements is the lack of consistency. The IRB’s current rules on international qualification require only three years residency in a foreign country or a grandparent from that country. You don’t have to hold that country’s passport to play. Players like Antonie Claassen and Bernard Le Roux, both South Africans, have turned out for France simply because they play their club rugby there and have not previously played for South Africa. Gareth Anscombe has just last week decided to head over to Wales, where ancestry gives him qualification for the Welsh.

Gareth Anscombe - moved down the road

Gareth Anscombe

Now, however, a passport has become the standard for qualification for test rugby for some players (like Sivivatu) and not for others (like Claassen). It shouldn’t be too hard to insist that one rule applies to everyone, yet the IRB is right now taking apart the only rule that does apply to everyone equally: the stipulation that once you play senior rugby for one country, you can only play for that country.

The IRB needs to start over. It needs to host all the stakeholders and sort out a regime for the business of rugby that actually displays some vision: a regime that will be applicable in ten, fifteen, twenty years’ time. Not just an ad hoc regulation for the next Olympics, scrappily drafted and full of problems, but a new approach that ties each of rugby’s various issues together into a coherent whole.

What are your suggestions for better eligibility requirements?

  • Hugh Cavill

    Great article Jamie. It’s a tricky issue, and I agree this is a fairly hamfisted attempt at solving it.

    I think that in principle the Pacific Islands should be entitled to some of the talent that they produce and then export to countries like New Zealand and Australia. It would make for better World Cups, and restore a global imbalance in the game.

    But how you do that is difficult. I wouldn’t be opposed to Sita Timani rolling out for Tonga at the World Cup, but I think I would have trouble with George Smith pulling on a red jersey. I think that has to do with Sita having a genuine Tongan heritage, where I consider George Smith an Aussie with a Tongan-born mother (have never met George or his mother so that assumption could well be completely flawed).

    This difference is critical to any eligiblity change- allowing guys who are genuinely Tongan, Samoan or Fijian to change, and not guys who are just looking for a late career World Cup swan song (again, not saying George is one of these).

    • david baldwin

      Hugh I agree and I don’t (but my disagreement is weak).

      I don’t want to see George Smith play for Tonga because I love the bloke and I think he is still good enough to play for the Wallabies. But that is a purely selfish reason.

      I do however think that it would do wonders for the game to allow players from pacific islands to return to their country of birth/origin/heritage AFTER they have retired from representative football with the Wallabies, AB’s etc. How that is done, I am not sure, but it would help grow the game and if you made sure that it was at the end of their careers and they had no possible chance of representing the Wallabies or All Blacks again, I think it could work.

      I know Kefu once said it would have meant a lot to him to be eligible to play for Tonga and I believe players like Umaga have echoed similar sentiments.

      I personally think we get so much satisfaction out of players like Smith, Kefu, Folau etc that love Australia and consider themselves Australians, but still have a strong connection with the Islands, that it is the least we could agitate for, on their behalf.

      • brumby runner

        I think it could be left to the individual players to decide when and if they have “retired” from test rugby for their adopted (original) country, and from that moment they would be eligible to play for their passport country, but never be able to swap at any time thereafter.

        I have no problem with Sita playing for Tonga as well, and indeed the PI nations would benefit immensely if their native players could elect to play for them at some stage in their careers. Think George Smith playing for Tonga is a furphy and just thrown in to muddy the waters, but if he was so inclined, then so be it if the rules allow.

        • david baldwin

          BR – I agree completely.

          I probably did not explain myself well enough but your first paragraph is exactly how I would see it working. At the players discretion, in the knowledge that they cant ever play for their adopted (original) country again.

          Would do wonders for the islands.

    • Brendan Hume

      I don’t get what’s wrong with the late career RWC swan song either. If you haven’t played for three years (or 18 months in the first instance) for your adopted nation, but were once good enough to qualify for a top tier nation, surely the benefits to the squad of the player’s nationality outweighs any detriment to other nations or other players.

  • lemoensap

    When I read about the eligibility rules yesterday, I was actually excited to see George Smith posibly playing for Tonga

  • Will N

    Great Article.
    I am not sure that I agree with it all the way, but it does have a valid argument.
    As a Tongan I would love to see the likes of George Smith or Sam Tuitupou put on a Red Jersey. But to say that it wouldn’t take away from the integrity of the game, is an absolute farce. Perhaps adding an amendment to the rule, that if they have played a certain amount of International games for any given Country, that that would disqualify them from switching down the road.

    • Sam

      It’s brilliant! The better the Pacific Islanders can become the better. Let’s face it, Tonga, samoa, Fiji have been shafted by th the bigger Rugby nations for decades. If an aging George Smith wants to turn out for Tonga in one game or 10, that’s great for rugby and great for the spectator.

  • Brendan Hume

    I don’t understand the concern here at all. For future Olympics the lag time will be three years. All the law is allowing is players who have not played international rugby for a period of time will be able to play for the country of their passport. The benefits to the squad, fans and marketability of ‘minnow’ nations of having former test players from top tier nations would far outweigh the negatives of having one young player miss out on their behalf.

  • Big D

    If they have played for a tier one nation they can then return to their “home” tier 2 nation, but never switch again.

  • Braveheart81

    The problem with making things relative to what passport(s) people hold is that this is entirely inconsistent between countries. Some countries allow people to hold two passports, some don’t. There are many different rules regarding changing/obtaining citizenship depending on each country as well.

    It’s definitely a problem and the inconsistencies are subtantial. I don’t like the new rule they’ve brought in allowing people to change allegiances at all purely due to
    Rugby 7s becoming an Olympic sport and a new overlap in rules developing (where you can represent multiple countries at the Olympics).

    Rules need to be universal though. It’s too hard to say that someone is a genuine Tongan or merely a Tongan from their heritage for example.

    The reality of a globalised world is that most people will be eligible for multiple countries. How many people have parents, grandparents and themselves all born in the same country that they still live in?

  • Johnno

    Good points, but also a bit of “Put a Sock in It” theory.
    -A lot of contridictions and conflicts this article.
    -You admit and rightly so, the big nations already enjoy a host financial benifits, but then bemoan, big Sita playing a farcical 5 minutes for Tonga in a meaningless sevens game then being able to play for Tonga his place of birth.
    -In the bigger picture “So what” theory too.
    -Rugby should be about growth, and helping the smaller nations and allowing a more competitive international scene.
    -A bit pedantic and petty, to worry about giving a bloke like Sita a meaningless 5 minutes in sevens, thus making him eligible to play 15’s, for his place of birth Tonga.
    “Get over it” and get on with it, applies to, as well to your argument, and don’t be so nit picky and pedantic.
    -The players have there cake and eat it too, is a good point too. But once again who says, all of them will go to Europe after say 5 or 10 tests in the SH. The player drain will happen anyway, think Ben Mowen,Kane Douglas, not many tests and there off after only 1 season or 2 of test footy, Ben Mowen’s case just 1 year. Euro drain will happen regardless, now with the big cash.
    -And many players who can still play for other countries will want to stay loyal too just 1. Who says Manu Tuilagi, will just wait for it ” step-down in the prim of his career from “paid Test-footy” for England, then play test footy for Samoa on alot less COIN. or Izzy Folau, just step down from playing for the Wobblies $$, and then play for Tonga, for a much lower contract and match payements.
    -The flip-flop anxiety , is exaggerated. And anyway it maybe moving to 3 years around 2018-19 anyway.
    -And seeing a 32 or 33 yr old Manu Tuilagi, or a 32yr old Izzy Folau, for the Islands nations is no big deal. And if younger who cares, makeing test footy for equal should be a priority, in order to grow the game. Get over it a bit James, if a few meaningless 5 minute 7’s cameos happen.

  • Alexander Sharman

    I think you have missed the point entirely. The reason for the changes in IRB elegibility rules are that rugby has to comply with IOC eligility rules. The IRB has no choice but to do so. Its not as if the IRB has suddenly decide to make up some rules.

    The IOC requires competitors for a country have a passport for that country, and also allows any athlete to switch countries after a 3 years standown period.

    “IOC rules for citizenship:
    The Olympic Charter requires that an athlete be a national of the
    country for which they compete. Dual nationals may compete for either
    country, as long as three years have passed since the competitor
    competed for the former country. However, if the NOCs and IF involved
    agree, then the IOC Executive Board may reduce or cancel this period.This waiting period exists only for athletes who previously competed
    for one nation and want to compete for another. If an athlete gains a
    new or second nationality, then they do not need to wait any designated
    amount of time before participating for the new or second nation. The
    IOC is only concerned with issues of citizenship and nationality after
    individual nations have granted citizenship to athletes”

    The 18 month standown period for the 2016 games is simply because the rules were not published until 2013, and from a legal point of view, it would be difficult to say to someone “although you have a passport from country X, which under IOC rules entitles you to represent that country in any other Olympic sport, you cannot play for your country, as you played Test rugby (which isnt in the Olympics) for another country before we told you what the elegibility rules would be. You cant make retroactive rules, and Im sure someone would challenge it in the Court of Arbitration for Sport if they had tried to make the rule retroactive.

    The other point is that in the history of rugby there have been a mountain of players who have played for multiple countries … Patricio Noriega, Topo Rodriguez, Brian Smith, Inga Tuigamala, Graeme Bachop …. did this make rugby worse off? Not as far as I can see.

    What it has done is see Australia and NZ give caps to many players who were possibly elegible for another country, to tie them in for life. Many of those players then become 1 or 2 test wonders, and are prohibited from every representing their country of birth o passport, even though they may be a standout player for that country. Allowing players to switch after a 3 year standdown will strengthen International Rugby and simply make the minnows more competative.

    If anyone complies with a 3 year standdown period, I dont see what the issue is.


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