France may not be making the biggest impact in the international arena on the field but the recently elected president of the French Federation of Rugby (FFR) Bernard Laporte threw a metaphorical grenade into the placid pool that is world rugby with comments he made a couple of weeks back: France would henceforth ignore World Rugby’s three-year residency rule and only select players with a French passport.
“We told World Rugby that we had made a decision not to select foreign players even if the regulation allows us,” said Laporte. “The regulations could change, but in our minds we do not want to use it except in case of force majeure.
“Our real aim is to favour the French players, to play as many French players as possible and be very careful about not impoverishing the Fijian, Georgian, Samoa and Tongan federations otherwise it impoverishes the international game, the aim is to have maximum number of competitive teams.”
Laporte went on to explain that the ruling would only apply to uncapped players so French internationals such as South African Scott Spedding and Fijian flyers Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa would be exempt. Nevertheless the unilateral declaration has humiliated World Rugby, who have been dragging their feet on this issue for decades, while highlighting the utter absurdity of the current three-year residency rule which favours the richest countries with the wealthiest leagues whilst beggaring the poorest.
After such a slap in the face you’d except every other nation to fall sheepishly into line behind La France and Laporte. You’d be wrong. Scotland benefits from so-called “project players” and Scotland is holding out against change like a flat-earther in the digital age. There is talk that an announcement extending the three-year residency to five years could take place later this month, although you might not want to hold your breath. Incidentally Murrayfield’s press office confirmed they supported the status quo but declined to explain why. They have form when it comes fetching up on the wrong side of history: the SRU voted against the World Cup before it first happened back in 1987.
According to one insider Australia are now on board with the change and even England, who have been known to field a foreigner or two in their time, are shifting position to get behind World Rugby’s Argentine vice president Gus Pichot, who has been a strong advocate of the five-year term. That would not solve the problem of countries stealing the best youngsters from the Pacific Islands and elsewhere but it may be a stepping stone on the way to passports being the only qualification and you have to fight the battles you can win.
Here it is worth pointing out that Pichot, from a cynic’s standpoint, could be seen as batting for the Pumas who traditionally have only selected players from Argentina! Similarly the SRU could be seen simply as doing what is best for Scottish rugby. The team would have struggled to reach the quarter final of the World Cup without the sturdy presence of WP Nel in the number three shirt. Coincidentally the South African tighthead was the only “Scot” in French rugby paper Midi Olympique’s 2016 Team of the Year.
But scratch the surface and even that assertion of narrow-minded self-interest is no longer as certain as those occupying the big offices in Murrayfield believe.
The Home Nations football tournament started in 1884 and then ended, abruptly, one hundred years later. The reasons given were hooliganism and falling attendance. They certainly played their part but, given that both issues are behind us, why hasn’t the one-time oldest international tournament in the world been reinstated?
In short, the rise of the club game has made international footy redundant outside of the European and World Cups. The Premier League was launched in 1992 as was the UEFA Champions League, and both of them elevated club football to a new level, one that eventually overshadowed the international game. Who can argue that something similar might not happen to rugby – it already has across the Channel.
French rugby has exactly the same problems as English footy. The club game has overtaken the national team as the main focus, too many fans shrug their shoulders when La France lose and focus their attention instead on Clermont, Toulouse or Racing, all of whom are populated by a vast influx of foreign players, attracted by the stellar wages on offer. Ultimately the national coach Guy Noves is scratching around for props in a country that produced Robert Paparemborde and Christian Califano.
Already the business end of the European Champions Cup rivals the standard of the Six Nations and a host of club owners in France and England are quietly working towards club rugby ousting the international game from top billing. Test-match rugby only has one unique selling point, the players are supposedly culled from just one country, but the current regulations undermine that sole USP and soon every national XV will look like Toulon, a united nations of mercenaries.
But there are other more altruistic reasons for Murrayfield to abandon its adherence to a three-year rule that is anathema to many fans. The eight World Cups to date have been won by just four countries. The pinnacle of the game desperately needs new challengers to step up from the tier-two countries and the likes of Fiji will never make that move while tier-one nations continue to use it like their little sister’s piggy bank, to take as they see fit and never return. Eight Fijian wingers played during the autumn internationals for five different countries and only two of them sported Fijian colours.
There is one final reason for the SRU to rethink their opposition to change and that is simply that it is wrong, philosophically and morally wrong to select players for the national team who have absolutely no links to Scotland, its history or its culture. France have realised this and acted. Scotland have not.