HAVE you heard of Bundee Aki? I hadn’t, at least not until last week. He may sound like a Cirque de Soleil trapeze artist, but instead he is a midfielder for the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise. He helped them to the title only last year.
Aki made the news recently because he announced that he is quitting the Chiefs and joining Connacht, which is an odd move until you realise that he has made it with the express intention of playing international rugby for Ireland. His connections with the Emerald Isle? Absolutely none, unless he has a fondness for the black stuff.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen acted like someone had poked him with a sharp stick. Hansen berated players on the fringes of the All Blacks for moving abroad for easy money and an easy life – having done exactly the same while coaching Wales.
The irony was noted even in the Kiwi papers, one of which recorded: “With hypocrisy coming from every word, the All Blacks coach fumed over players who take ‘easy options’ and ‘lack mental fortitude’.”
Anyway, New Zealand has for decades been cherry-picking the best of the Pacific Islands sides without even having the good grace to throw them the odd bone in the form of a Test match on home soil. Sitiveni Sivivatu was born and raised in Fiji, only moving to New Zealand when he was 15 and his talents were obvious to a blind man and his dog. Indeed, the winger had played for the joint Pacific Isles side and scored two Test tries against the All Blacks before he was drafted into the New Zealand team, for whom he made 45 appearances.
Sivivatu wasn’t the first “project player” and he won’t be the last. The problem now is that everyone has cottoned on to the possibilities. New Zealand and Australia have form in this: it isn’t a coincidence that there are five South Africans in the Western Force squad.
The smaller European nations do it because they have gaps in their “futures” board (that predicts probable Test teams three to five years down the line), while the bigger European nations do it by accident. Wales currently boast an abundance of domestic talent and still the Ospreys have brought in Rynier Bernardo, a South African lock who has thrown his lot in with Wales and been awarded a three-year regional contract to help smooth the transition.
Ireland have perhaps six or seven projects, including hooker Richardt Strauss, who has already played against his cousin, Adriaan Strauss, who was in a Springboks shirt. Leinster lock Quinn Roux may not make the grade but there are high hopes for Munster flanker CJ Stander now that he is getting some game time.
Ulster’s Kiwi Jared Payne is pencilled in as Brian O’Driscoll’s replacement and prop Rodney Ah You may come into the mix if he can steer clear of the chippy. His Connacht colleague, Jake Heenan, played for New Zealand’s Under-20s team but he will still qualify for Ireland in 2016. At least the flanker was born on St Patrick’s Day, which perhaps makes him more Irish than most other “projects”.
Italy are eyeing up a couple of foreigners in Calvisano’s 110kg Kiwi stand-off Kelly Haimona, Treviso’s Fijian No.8 Samu Vunisa and Baby Bok Braam Steyn, all of whom will qualify for the Azzurri in the next year or so.
The International Rugby Board’s Regulation Eight insists that 36 months’ continuous residency is sufficient to play for an adopted nation but the IRB suits are wilfully unaware of the effect it is having on the integrity of the international game. Regulation Eight is a hangover from the amateur era when the financial incentives to move continent to play rugby simply did not exist. Now, an England international is earning something like £200,000 per annum (ten Tests at £15,000 per match, plus £50,000 odd in endorsements) – on top of his club salary – and that adds up to a lot of incentive.
“I respect the fact that people will have their views on all of that,” said former Ireland coach Declan Kidney, pictured left, after picking New Zealand prop Michael Bent for the national side before he’d turned out for Leinster, “but our job is to put the best team out for Ireland. Them’s the rules. Everyone is doing it.”
Of course international coaches will exploit the IRB rules because it’s convenient and because, as Deccy points out, “everyone’s doing it”. Incidentally, Bent has an Irish granny so he is not a “project”, but his get-out doesn’t make all the others right any more than the “everyone’s doing it” schtick. And so to Scotland, where the Union admits to having four “projects” in Glasgow’s Josh Strauss and Mike Cusack, alongside Edinburgh’s WP Nel and Cornell du Preez. Quite where that leaves the Edinburgh quartet of Wicus Blaauw, Sam Beard, Mike Coman and Andries Strauss is anyone’s guess. I doubt all these uncapped players moved halfway around the world for the thrill of playing rugby in front of 3,500 people inside Murrayfield’s mausoleum.
You might think that the IRB’s three-year residency rule helps small nations such as Scotland but, even if blatant self-interest were a valid motivation, that isn’t even necessarily true. Longer term it will help the biggest, richest rugby nations in the world – England and France. Neither the RFU nor the FFR has a “projects” policy because they don’t need one. Their hugely wealthy clubs sign overseas players by the bucketful every single season and after three short years of turning out in the Aviva or the Top 14 they become eligible for England or France.
Just ask Bath’s Fijian winger Semesa Rokoduguni or Wasps’ No.8 Nathan Hughes. The former is a Fijian who has already appeared in the England Saxons squad and remains an outside bet for England’s World Cup. The latter boasts Samoan and Fijian heritage, has been tearing up trees in the Aviva and had this to say re his international ambitions: “I’m not going to make any decisions yet, I still need more experience. Down the line I’ll start making a decision over who to play for. I have Fijian and Samoan backgrounds, but if I wait a bit longer I might be able to play for England as well.”
So a Fijian/Samoan who used to play for the Blues in Auckland has his eyes set on an England career and the money that comes with it. You can’t blame him. Instead, turn your anger on the IRB whose barmy rules encourage Hughes and a host of others to seek out the highest bidder. Is that really what international sport should be about? Mercenaries “deciding” which country to represent? It may be worth returning to what the then Fijian coach Inoke Male, pictured below, said two years ago.
“There are several players not available to us for this tour because they want to play for other countries,” said Male ahead of Fiji travelling to Europe. “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. England and France have got a lot of players to pick from already and, as a small country, for our players to be poached from us is not acceptable.
“That means that everyone here [in Fiji] who is young wants to play for England... but it is mainly because of the money.”
This is not a black and white issue, in terms of race or anything else. Most nations are multi-cultural and their international squads should represent that fact. The Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, have spent 15 years in the UK and probably “feel” every bit as much English as they do Tongan/Kiwi/Australian. They have paid their dues, others have not.
There are shades of grey everywhere: economics and the desire for a better life are at the root of much of the migration but if left unchecked the integrity of Test-match rugby will count for nothing, with every team fielding a Pacific Islander on the wing, a Georgian prop and a big Saffa by the name of “Flip” who can double up at four or six. The homogenisation of rugby will be complete, every team on the planet will adopt the same tactics and nations will be identifiable only by the colour of their shirts rather than the style of rugby.
Rugby union is still in the foothills of professionalism and this issue will only become more acute. If you think countries are fielding an all-comers’ XV in next year’s World Cup, just wait for the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, where every team will resemble the Barbarians. The current migration at the pinnacle of rugby is the start of the process, not the end of it, the tip of the iceberg that will eventually sink the international game.
When quizzed the IRB stated that their Player Movement and Costs Working Group recently reviewed Regulation Eight and deemed it “appropriate”. You have to wonder who, exactly, they canvassed?