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.
I was always very passionate about playing for Ireland and about being Irish in general away from sport. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see how the right thing for some players to do in certain circumstances is to concentrate on their own situation and do what’s best for them. It’s a tough life and sometimes you won’t make it in your home country right from the start – especially if that country is New Zealand.
The Australian national team has a number of Kiwis playing on it at the minute. Cooper is one, Sekope Kepu is another. Kepu was actually born in Australia but moved to New Zealand as a young kid and worked his way up through the system there, playing for them internationally at every stage up to under-21. Then he moved back to Australia and declared for them. As I say, the whole area is complicated.
The other Kiwi in the Aussie side is Mike Harris, who found himself in the middle of a row last week when the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had a go at Australia for stealing players from New Zealand.
“It’s time you developed your own players in your own country,” he said. “What I find frustrating is Australia trying to build their game, putting more franchises in, but all they’re doing is stealing our players. You must put the energy and time into development not just come over to New Zealand and take ours.”
It was pretty hypocritical stuff, when you think about it. This from the coach of the All Blacks, the most famous team on the planet when it comes to poaching players from other countries to improve their squad.
The Australian union’s John O’Neill came out and threw a few digs back. “The comments from the All Blacks coach are insulting, ill-informed, and clearly made without reviewing New Zealand’s history for fielding players born outside their borders,” O’Neill said. “I would not even want to guess how many players born in the South Pacific islands have worn the All Blacks jersey.”
This is the problem with talking about this area of international rugby. Once you get into a slanging match about who robbed this player or that player, you’re going nowhere.
The truth of it is that the regulations aren’t exactly water-tight and also that all countries have an open mind about getting people in to wear their national jersey. Once you accept that as being true – and if you look at the teamsheet of every rugby-playing country in the world you have to accept it – then pointing fingers and taking offence when somebody turns up in another colour is pointless.
Every country does it and has done it. Whether it’s through the three-year residency rule or finding a granny on the family tree somewhere. Tony Marsh and Pieter De Villiers for France, Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuiliagi for England, Brendan Laney and Dan Parks for Scotland, Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson for Wales. The list is endless. We’re doing it ourselves here in Ireland this very week, with Richardt Strauss and Michael Bent.
The Strauss case is probably how this issue would play out in a perfect world. He took an opportunity to come over and play in Ireland. He committed to staying for three years and aspired to making the national squad after his time was served. He played some immense rugby for Leinster in the meantime and built up a rapport with the supporters. He was a vital part of two Heineken Cup wins.
And now he’s about to make the step up at the age of 26. There’s every chance he will take over from Rory Best eventually and he could be there for the next 10 years. It’s tough on the likes of Seán Cronin but you couldn’t really have asked for much more out of Strauss. I’ve heard people say that maybe three years is too short a timespan but in fairness if a guy is going to commit for three years, it’s hard to question his interest.
Munster are doing the same from next week with a young South African flanker called CJ Stander. He’s coming as a special project with a view to him being Irish-qualified by 2015. If he works out as well as Strauss has, good luck to him.
The Bent case is different. This is a guy who hasn’t played a minute of rugby in Ireland yet he walks into the squad straight off the plane. He’s eligible because of his grandmother but something about it doesn’t feel right.
Maybe there should be a combined rule that says if you are playing because of a grandparent, you have to put in at least one season with the country you are joining first of all. Nothing against him personally – if the opportunity is presented to you as a professional player and the circumstances are right, you’re only right to grab it – but walking through Arrivals and into the squad is a bit farcical.
But he might go on to play for Ireland for years. You sometimes find guys who come in from outside have even more passion when they pull on the jersey than the home-grown lads. Kevin Maggs was like that when I was playing for Ireland. Any time you spent with him, you came away feeling his love for Ireland. He showed it every day in everything he said and did. It glowed off him.
Not everybody is like that but not everybody is a mercenary turning up to boost their profile either. Each case is an individual one and each player has his own backstory and his own motivation.
Whether you’re a special project or a long-lost grandson or a promising schoolboy whose father has an agent telling him he should move the whole family halfway across the world, the decision to switch countries can’t be an easy one. But in a world where people are constantly moving around, it’s not easy for the IRB to police it all either.
I don’t have any great solutions. One thing is for sure though – the Fiji coach is right. Big countries like England and France shouldn’t be trying to poach young kids and get them into their system at an early age. Just as that French club shouldn’t have been trying to lure Luke McAlister away as a 15-year-old. Whatever you do as a grown-up should be your own business but surely the IRB can make it illegal for foreign clubs to contact players before they’re 18? It’s a small step but it might lead to something a bit less complicated than what we have.