Gerry Thornley: Residency ruling suits richer countries

Luke Fitzgerald and Ronan O’Gara not afraid to speak their minds on controversial rule

Connacht’s Bundee Aki: the New Zealand-born player will qualify to play for Ireland  by next season. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht’s Bundee Aki: the New Zealand-born player will qualify to play for Ireland by next season. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Luke Fitzgerald has certainly stoked the embers of the current debate regarding the vexed three-year residency ruling. It was revealing that the former Irish utility back admitted that it pissed him off to see players eligible under the residency rule usurp him in an Irish team and that both the Ireland team and international rugby were being diluted in the process.

Fitzgerald’s comments are a reminder that retired players are freer to speak their minds than current players. Fitzgerald would have been highly reluctant to express such forceful concerns while playing alongside team-mates who qualified to play for Ireland in this manner.

Ronan O’Gara has never been shy about declaring his view’s honestly and fair play to him for that. He does not want to bring his kids to the Aviva Stadium to see Ireland play one day in the future were the team to feature a majority of players who qualified in this manner. He also maintains the three-year qualification period should be extended to 10 years. No compromise.

Fitzgerald’s comments do fuel the argument to have the residency rule extended to five years or abolished altogether. On his election as vice-chairman of World Rugby last May, former Argentinian scrumhalf Agustín Pichot made plain his opposition to the three-year residency ruling and said that as a compromise he would campaign for it to be extended to a qualification period of five years.

As a rule, so to speak, it does sit a little uncomfortably. Imagine, for example, were such a rule to apply in soccer. The game would become more like club soccer, with the richer nations recruiting from everywhere.

Global game

On foot of his election, Pichot cited the following hypothetical example: “Just moving to a country, being taken from an academy, like they are doing in Tonga, and put into play, say, in an Ireland shirt, I’m against it. I think it is not right. I would love him to play in Tonga and make money playing for Tonga and live well.”

Second Captains

Of course, no remotely comparable example exists in Irish rugby, whereas other countries, notably France, are targeting younger players in the Pacific islands and elsewhere.

It’s also worth noting that in the 34-man Irish squad announced last week there were only two players who fell into this category: CJ Stander and Jared Payne.

Granted, there have been others in the recent past such as Richardt Strauss, Nathan White and Rodney Ah You, and by next season Bundee Aki, Tyler Bleyendaal and Wiehahn Herbst will qualify to play for Ireland as well.

Them’s the rules, and one cannot blame the IRFU and the provinces availing of the ruling to identify special projects, nor the Scottish, English, French or anyone else for that matter. Nor, certainly, can one blame the players themselves for making such a career choice or the coaches who are charged with winning games doing what they feel gives a province or Ireland the best chance of doing so.

Joe Schmidt maintains that Fitzgerald’s views are not reflective of an over-riding feeling within the ranks of indigenous players and that most are quite content to have Ireland be as competitive as possible.

That a larger number of players who qualify through the residency ruling could conceivably dilute an international team’s identity and culture is something the coaches would have to weigh up.

But two out of 34 is hardly excessive, nor is two out of 15. Both Stander and Payne are likely to start against the All Blacks next Saturday in Soldier Field in Chicago and Ireland are a better team for their presence. Nor, one ventures, would Irish supporters (or indeed Fitzgerald and others) be complaining too loudly if Stander or Payne scored an 80th-minute winning try. Ditto were Aki, Bleyendaal or Herbst to do so in years to come. What’s more, the All Blacks benefit plenty from the Pacific islands, and the Wallabies have had their share too.

Perception is everything, and one wonders if there is more opposition when a player’s name is taken into consideration. For example, Rodney Ah You or Bundee Aki sound a good deal more foreign than, say, Nathan White or Jared Payne. Yet, of course, a player’s name – like his country of birth, colour of his skin, political viewpoints and general demeanour – should have nothing to do with it.

Professional career

Furthermore, to commit to another country away from extended family and friends is a brave thing to do and a period of three years can equate to a quarter of, say, a 12-year professional career. So to increase that to five years is much more significant than it might look at first glance.

Ultimately, though, what is most dislikable is that the three-year residency ruling is a rich man’s rule. The beneficiaries are the countries that have the financial means to bring in players under this ruling. The losers are those who cannot afford to keep them. That’s the most compelling reason for modifying it, even if Ireland would be hit more than most.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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