Does the import influx help or hinder our national sides, asks Iain Morrison
AVERT your eyes if you are reading this in the local café over a full English because the following news may cause a loss of appetite. HP Sauce is owned by an American company (HJ Heinz) and it is made in the Netherlands. Ouch! Perhaps there was a deal, we give them a tasty comestible for their sausages and they give us a tasty winger for the Six Nations in return.
The iconic Mini is owned by the Germans, Marmite is made by Unilever (an Anglo/Dutch conglomerate) and Smarties are manufactured in Germany by the Swiss. Even Ronseal is American owned and it doesn’t say that on the tin. Nothing is quite what it seems.
And so to rugby where the old amateur motto of “have boots, will travel” seems to have been adopted wholeheartedly in the professional era, if the multi-national composition of the Six Nations squads is anything to go by. Well, some of them.
A recently conducted survey reckoned that 40 per cent of all players in the French Top 14 were foreign and yet the France squad is 100 per cent bona fide French, if not born, then at least bred. There are a couple of foreign-born players – Fulgence Ouedraogo and Thierry Dusautoir were born in Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast respectively – but both men grew up in France and the latter has a French father. They are recognisably French. Despite boasting more rugby players than any other country in the world, the same cannot be said of England, who have a sizable minority of foreigners even if we exclude the New York-born prop Alex Corbisiero, who emigrated to England at the tender age of five. Whatever else he is, he wasn’t recruited by the RFU as a so-called “project player” (the name given to foreigners brought into a country specifically with a view to qualifying to play after three years). Nor were any of England’s other foreign imports, at least as far as anyone can tell.
Manusamoa Tuilagi simply followed his older brothers Alex and Freddie over to the UK at the age of 12 on a six-month holiday visa. Six years later this problem came to light and he lived with the threat of deportation hanging over him until the authorities were persuaded to give him indefinite leave to remain in the UK, helped by a Facebook campaign by Leicester supporters.
Giant South African lock Mouritz Botha is a similar tale of opportunism rather than anything more mercenary. He moved to England in 2004 to further a rugby career that had stalled back home but he wasn’t picked up by Saracens until fully five years later after turning out for various teams including a three-year stint at Championship side Bedford Blues, who must have thought it was their birthday every Saturday afternoon. In many respects Botha is England’s answer to Nathan Hines.
Botha’s countryman Brad Barritt played for Natal Sharks and South Africa under-21s but that did not tie him to the Springboks. The England centre holds a UK passport (his parents were born and brought up in what was then Rhodesia) so he qualifies for England despite having only lived there since 2008. He even returned to South Africa briefly the following year to help the Sharks out of an injury-induced hole.
The New Zealand duo Dylan Hartley and Thomas Waldrom have similar stories. Hartley has an English mum and moved to England when he was a teenager. Waldrom relocated to England and signed for Leicester Tigers after being overlooked by the All Blacks selectors and, only after he arrived, did he realise that an English-born grandmother made him eligible without the three-year residency wait.
Mako Vunipola was born in New Zealand to Tongan parents but moved to England as a youth. His brother, Billy, has followed Mako to Saracens for next season and it seems only a matter of time before the muscular No.8, currently in the Saxons squad, follows his brother into England’s senior side.
Wales and Ireland both have no more than a sprinkling of foreign players each, although that may change as we get closer to the next World Cup, when Leinster’s South African lock Quinn Roux has a fighting chance of making an appearance.
For Wales, the Cardiff Blues No.8 Andries Pretorius has qualified on residency (and his wife is Welsh), while Toby Faletua was born in Tonga but brought up in Wales after moving there with his father Kuli, a Tongan international who was signed by Ebbw Vale in the late 1990s.
Ireland have just one obvious foreigner in their Six Nations squad, Ulster’s Australian prop Tom Court, although Leinster’s South African hooker Richardt Strauss would be listed if he wasn’t injured. Strauss has already gone head to head with his cousin Adriaan Strauss when Ireland played South Africa in the autumn.
It is no surprise that the country with the smallest rugby history and hinterland has the largest number of imports. Italy have scoured the world in an effort to remain competitive while their domestic rugby gears up to produce the goods necessary to play Six Nations rugby. Even ignoring Sergio Parisse and Josh Furno (born in Argentina and Australia respectively to Italian parents) the Azzurri still boast the biggest foreign contingent of any major Test nation. Martin Castrogiovanni, the two Gonzalos (Canale and Garcia) and Luciano Orquera are all Argentines. Tobias Botes and Quintin Geldenhuys, you might not be surprised to hear, are South African. Kris Burton and Luke McLean are Aussies, the breakaway Manoa Vosawai is Fijian and Robert Barbieri is a Canadian whose brother Michael plays for the country of the boys’ birth.
If Italy are struggling to carve out a style of rugby that suits them on the world stage, it is hardly surprising given the disparate rugby cultures that make up the squad.
Despite the lack of playing numbers, which restricts Scottish rugby, the national team boasts just three – or arguably four – obvious foreigners in Tim Visser (Netherlands), Sean Maitland (New Zealand) and David Denton (Zimbabwe). The speedy winger Tommy Seymour, Texas born with an Irish upbringing and a Scottish mum, is a borderline case. You will probably be able to add to that list by the time the 2015 world cup nears.
Some might argue that it doesn’t matter where players come from but, when rugby is chasing the same support as every other sport in the country, having a recognisable, stand-alone identity is just as vital for the profile and culture of the team as winning is. That can be tricky when fielding the equivalent of the United Nations.
Football has no route whereby an adult may qualify for a country on grounds of residency alone. That may be a little severe, and Scotland should be grateful that any foreigner would want to pull on that dark blue shirt but, surely, the IRB need to tighten the residency qualification from three to five years to dampen the enthusiasm for opportunistic rugby tourism.
We already have homogenisation of the game, let’s try to avoid the same happening to the international teams.