These patriot games are not always so clear-cut
FROM THE BLINDSIDE:Motivation for switching countries representatively can vary greatly but the IRB needs to make the rules for qualification less complicated, writes ALAN QUINLAN
WHEN IRELAND were on tour in New Zealand in 2006, Ronan O’Gara and I went one day to have a coffee with Luke McAlister. Munster were trying to sign him at the time and he wanted to ask us a few questions about the club he might be moving to. We had a good chat – obviously not good enough because he signed for Sale in the end – but the one thing that was eye-opening for me was when he told us that a French club had been on to him since he was 15 to try and get him to sign for them.
Apparently this wasn’t unusual at all in New Zealand. Scouts would be at schoolboy matches watching players as young as 14 and 15 and trying to get them and their families to move halfway across the world to play rugby. At the very least, they wanted to get him onto a database with a view to signing him in the future, to start a relationship that might pay off for the club down the road. He didn’t go for it but it would be interesting to think where his life would have led if he had.
Would he now have 50 caps for France? It’s very possible.
The issue of players playing for countries other than the one they were born in has come up a lot lately. Only last week, I was reading an interview with Inoke Male, the coach of Fiji, who was raging over the amount of young players from his country that are being lost. The mad thing about it was that it was Northern Hemisphere countries that he was really angry about, not Southern Hemisphere ones as you’d expect.
“There are several players not available to us for this tour because they want to play for other countries,” he said. “Young players now want to pursue options for other countries rather than coming on tour which is not a good sign. We have got a lot of problems caused by European countries, especially France and England, who have taken some of our players through their academies when they were young.
“There is one very talented player we wanted to select who went to an English academy and he is now 16-years-old and has opted to play for England.”
This whole area is complicated from beginning to end and anybody who has a firm black and white opinion on it probably needs to listen to the arguments a bit more. From a player’s point of view, nationalism and patriotism are obviously important but so is self-improvement and so is your living. This isn’t just a matter for young kids coming up through the ranks in places like Fiji and Tonga and Samoa, it affects players from the bigger nations as well.
I spent 10 weeks in New Zealand over the past year and just as it was fascinating to see the amount of Pacific Islanders who had moved there to play rugby, it was incredible to see the New Zealanders’ attitude to the likes of Quade Cooper who was born a Kiwi but plays for Australia. You would spend a long time in New Zealand before you’d find someone with a good word to say about Cooper, purely because he’s against them now rather than for them.
It can’t be that simple. Put patriotism to one side for a minute and look at the life of a professional rugby player. No matter how big the game is getting, the market is still very small compared to other sports. If you are going to make the game your life and your livelihood and if you’re going to support a family off the back of it, then your first responsibility is to your career.