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Gerry Thornley: New Test eligibility rules a boost for Pacific Island sides

The likes of Piutau could feature at the next World Cup with nations of their heritage

Former All Black Charles Piutau could be eligible to play for Tonga under the new rules. Photograph: Duif du Toit/Getty

The primary rationale behind the decision of the World Rugby Council to amend the regulations regarding player eligibility is to give a boost to the Pacific Islands and specifically Tonga – who are likely to be in Ireland's World Cup pool in France in 2023 – and Samoa.

World Rugby have amended regulation 8 to allow an international player who hasn’t played Test rugby for at least three years to revert back to the country of his birth and/or heritage.

The amendment comes into effect on January 1st, 2022, and in order for a player “to transfer from one union to another under the revised regulation 8”, as the game’s governing body puts it, “the player must stand down from international rugby for 36 months.”

In other words, if a player last played a Test at any time prior to January 1st 2019, switching allegiance would be allowed, but only to the country in which they, a parent or grandparent were born.

Isa Nacewa was prevented from playing for his native New Zealand because he earned a solitary Fiji cap in 2003. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

“After 1 January 2022, any player who meets the above criteria can apply immediately for a transfer.”

The amendment required 75 per cent approval by the 52-member council and it is understood that this threshold was met – if only narrowly. In this, World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont has been true to his word in promising a wide-ranging review of the eligibility rules, and it is a clearly also a legacy of the work done by the departing Joe Schmidt.

There will be some, maybe plenty, who will claim this will permit wide-scale cases of players switching allegiances and devalue international rugby, and it remains to be seen if there may yet be unintended consequences.


However, on the whole, the pluses far outweigh the negatives, not least in boosting the Pacific Islands countries who have been disadvantaged by socio-economic factors in losing players forever more to Tier 1 nations.

It is unlikely that there will be an avalanche of players reverting to the countries of their birth and/or heritage and it constitutes a further antidote to the three-year residency ruling, which has already been extended to five years.

Isa Nacewa made one appearance for Fiji at the 2003 World Cup. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/Getty/AFP

A prime example from the past would be Isa Nacewa. New Zealand-born of Fijian descent, at the age of 21 Nacewa played for Fiji once in the 2003 World Cup, coming on as a replacement for just three minutes and not touching the ball once. Thereafter, he was debarred from ever playing for the All Blacks, despite lobbying World Rugby and seeking legal advice to have that one cap annulled.

Had this amendment been in existence then, who knows how many times Nacewa might have played for the country of his birth from the age of 24 onwards. Granted, Leinster probably wouldn’t have reaped the benefits of his eight gilded years with them, but wouldn’t this amendment have been fairer for him?

In truth the regulation previously worked against the countless others from the Pacific Islands who were capped early in their careers by richer Tier 1 countries, only to be discarded.

The amendment will not have a significant impact on Ireland or the other Tier 1 international teams, although it will undoubtedly give Tonga and Samoa especially, and also Fiji, a stronger hand at the 2023 World Cup. And they need it.

Fiji qualified for the quarter-finals at the inaugural 1987 World Cup and again in 2007, while Samoa did in 1991 and 1995, with both countries reaching the 1999 quarter-final play-offs. Tonga have had their scalps too, notably registering two pool wins in 2007 and 2011 (when beating Japan and France). But in the last two World Cups the three Pacific Island nations have managed just one pool win apiece on both occasions.


At the next World Cup, Tonga could be buttressed, among others, by the eligibility of the brilliant Bristol and ex-All Blacks fullback Charles Piutau, the ex-All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa and, potentially, the disgraced former Wallabies star Israel Folau, who was sacked by Rugby Australia in 2019 for his homophobic social media posts and last played Test rugby in November 2018.

In the longer term, the amendment is expected to boost other Tier 2 countries such as Namibia, Spain, Algeria, Georgia and Portugal, who first came to the council seeking a consultation process.

The disgraced Israel Folau could represent Tonga under the new rules. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

It’s worth noting too that the change has been welcomed by the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare chief executive and ex-Samoa lock Daniel Leo and International Rugby Players chief executive Omar Hassanein, who said: “Many players across the world will now benefit from the chance to represent the country of their or their ancestors’ birth, serving as a real boost to the competitiveness of emerging nations, which in turn will benefit the game as a whole.”

The change follows the creation of a professional franchise, Moana Pasifika, which will be based in Auckland and consist mostly of players from the Pacific Island nations.

But the success of these initiatives will also hinge on securing adequate player release from Tier 1 countries whose contractual demands and club owners discriminate against them doing so. And ideally that will probably need a more properly aligned global calendar and more matches too.

This radical rule change regarding eligibility has also somewhat overshadowed another significant announcement by World Rugby, namely to adopt a "partnership approach" to Rugby World Cup host selection. To this end they have confirmed "exclusive Preferred Candidate status" to England for the Women's RWC 2025 and Australia for RWC 2027 while confirming the USA will "enter into exclusive targeted dialogue" for RWC 2031.

Potential beneficiaries of World Rugby’s amendment to its eligibility rules:


Charles Piutau
Age: 30
Born in New Zealand, from Tongan parents, the sidestepping, goose-stepping, offloading fullback won the last of 17 All Blacks caps in 2017 when discarded before the World Cup on foot of his decision to move abroad.

Israel Folau
Age: 32
Australian-born, Folau's parents are Tongan, and, after scoring 37 tries in 73 Tests for the Wallabies, the extraordinarily athletic outside back was sacked by Rugby Australia for his homophobic social media posts in 2019. But after a return to rugby league, he is back playing union with Shining Arcs in Japan and Tongan head coach Toutai Kefu has confirmed that he has already sounded out Folau and said the player was "keen to go".

Vaea Fifita
Age: 29
The Tongan-born lock won the last of his 11 caps for the All Blacks in July 2019, meaning he could switch his allegiance to the country of his birth in July next year.


Lima Sopoaga
Age: 30
Formerly of Wasps and now with Lyon, the former New Zealand outhalf won the last of his 16 caps in 2017 and has already stated his desire to switch his international allegiance to Samoa, where his family all hail from, in the future.

Steven Luatua
Age: 30
Of strong Samoan heritage, the Bristol Bears captain, flanker, talisman and often their main source of go-forward won the last of his 15 caps for the All Blacks in 2015.

Julian Savea

Age: 31
Aka "The Bus", Savea scored the first three of his 46 Test tries in his debut against Ireland in 2012 and, after an unsuccessful stint with Toulon, is back in New Zealand playing with the Hurricanes. But although touted for a recall he won the last of his 54 caps in 2017 and has begun to learn Samoan from his parents.

Ma’a Nonu

Age: 39
Also of strong Samoan heritage, the two-time World Cup winner earned the last of his 103 caps for the All Blacks in the 2015 final and will be 41 at the next World Cup, but he is still playing for East Coast in the NZ Heartland Championship.

Caleb Timu
Age: 27
The powerful Australian number eight played two Tests for the Wallabies against Ireland in 2019 before moving to Montpellier, meaning he could become eligible for Samoa through heritage in the summer of 2022.

Jeffery Toomaga-Allen
Age: 31
The Wellington-born tighthead has returned to the Hurricanes from a spell with Wasps and, having won his sole All Blacks cap back in 2013, has already declared his interested in playing for Samoa, where his mother was born and raised.


Nathan Hughes
Age: 30
Born and reared in Fiji, the powerful backrower moved to Wasps in 2013 and was capped through residency three years later by England. But, having since joined Bristol, he won the last of his 22 English caps in March 2019, making him potentially eligible for the country of his birth a year and a half before the next World Cup. His uncle, Asaeli Hughes, represented Fiji in both basketball and rugby.

Semesi Rokoduguni
Age: 34
The Fijian-born former British Army soldier won the last of his four caps for England in 2017, but then again he will be 36 come the next World Cup and Fiji aren't struggling for midfielders or outside backs.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times