World Rugby needs to learn from IAAF on residency rule

In his four years as Ireland coach, Schmidt has now capped eight ‘foreign’ players

Sebastian Coe: “With the welfare of athletes and the integrity of competitions at stake, this is not a process which should be rushed.”Photograph: Jean-Pierre Amet/Reuters

Sebastian Coe: “With the welfare of athletes and the integrity of competitions at stake, this is not a process which should be rushed.”Photograph: Jean-Pierre Amet/Reuters

 

It’s been a while since anyone looked to the IAAF for leadership. The governing body of world athletics has earned a hard reputation for being both soft and spineless, often for good reason. Only now at least they’re standing up to something.

Not only Russia either. That latest charade by deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko at the 2018 World Cup draw in the Kremlin was another reminder that when it comes to anti-doping, Russia is a joke. Yet with the exception of track and field, every other sport is still happy to laugh along.

“Why do you trample Russia underfoot?” asked Mutko, also head of the Russian Football Association, after rejecting any evidence of systematic doping around their hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. “Let’s openly display all the facts . . . we are playing by the rules. Where’s the proof?”

Stacked up in McLaren Reports, for starters; or the gory details of former Moscow anti-doping director Grigory Rodchenkov, currently in witness protection in the US such is the threat to his life.

More than enough proof to convince the IAAF to further extend their ban on Russian athletes, first imposed before the Rio Olympics, and still the only governing body of sport to do so, along with the International Paralympics Committee.

That decision was confirmed by IAAF president Seb Coe at their council meeting in Monaco last weekend, along with the decision to further extend their freeze on any transfer of allegiance. The exact implications of that ruling can be felt a little closer to home.

“With the welfare of athletes and the integrity of competitions at stake, this is not a process which should be rushed,” said Coe, referring to the IAAF’s decision last February to freeze Rule 5, which governs eligibility and transfer of allegiance, with a view to making it watertight.

“We must get this right. And if that requires further consultation, discussion and research then that will be time well spent to safeguard athletes’ safety and the sport’s credibility.”

Coe knows what he’s talking about. The problem with Rule 5 was that it was open to laughable abuse. Previously, athletes acquiring new citizenship needed to wait three years before representing that country; when amended in 2012, that period could be “cancelled in exceptional cases” by the IAAF (i.e. under the counter), and with that opening the proverbial floodgates.

For now, it doesn’t matter if you come to the IAAF with a shamrock tattooed onto your heart; there’s no way you can transfer allegiance to Ireland. Or indeed away from it. It will be next March at the earliest before they restore Rule 5, and according to Coe, this is to ensure any amendments put to the IAAF are robust and “will best address the agreed principles and the rationale for the initial freeze”.

Too late

Sadly, this comes a little too late for Fionnuala McCormack and her quest to win another European Cross Country, following back-to-back titles won in 2011-2012. Because unless they run the wrong way, it’s hard to see either Yasemin Can or Meryem Akda being beaten by any European athlete next Sunday, when the 2017 championships are staged in the Slovak town of Šamorín.

Can and Akda, remember, although representing Turkey, were born, raised and continue to train in Kenya; Can is better known there as Vivian Jemutai, and Akda as Mirriam Jepchirchir, and together they finished one-two in last year’s European Cross Country in Sardinia, helping to squeeze McCormack’s into fifth.

Reportedly still only 20, Can already caused a stir by winning the European 10,000m title in Amsterdam in 2016, just over four months after completing her transfer. McCormack, who finished fourth in the same race, didn’t hide her feelings, infamously declaring “it’s a joke, really, the exact same every f****** time”.

The Turkish men’s team for Slovakia, by the way, consists of Ali Kaya (or, Stanley Kiprotich Mukche), Aras Kaya (or, Amos Kibitek), Kaan Kigen Özbilen (or, Mike Kipruto Kigen), Polat Kemboi Arikan (or, Paul Kipkosgei Kemboi) and Alper Demir. Yes, four out of five are actually Kenyan; what’s up with the other guy?

It had become a stand-up joke, and at least the IAAF has stopped laughing. And there may be a lesson in there for other sports, including what’s going on with that green jersey franchise also known as the Irish rugby team.

Earlier this year, World Rugby increased from three to five years their player residency rule, which under Regulation 8, has allowed Joe Schmidt to strengthen his squad since 2013 by including the likes Richardt Strauss, Jared Payne, Quinn Roux, CJ Stander, Nathan White, and more recently Bundee Aki.

In his four years as Ireland coach, Schmidt has now capped eight players who have qualified under the residency rule, with plenty more possibly in line, starting with Munster’s Tyler Blyendaal, perhaps even Connacht’s new signing Pita Ahki. The five-year rule may slow down the process, but will do nothing to halt it.

At the same time, talk of Stander’s possible move from Munster to a French club next season may well create a new sort of sporting refugee, unable or unwilling to play for their homeland, not sure either where their future residency lies – at least if Stander is shown the same sort of absurd treatment as Simon Zebo after his move to Racing 92 in France. Payne’s contract with Ulster is also up next summer.

It’s not yet a laughing matter, but maybe World Rugby needs to take a leaf of the IAAF’s book, put a freeze Regulation 8, and start all over again.

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