Iain Morrison: Why rugby residency rule should be five years

International rugby's three-year residency rule has been scrapped at a meeting in Japan and replaced by new criteria which extends the qualification period to five years.

WP Nel qualifies for Scotland through the three-year residency rule. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Agustine Pichot, the former Argentina scrum-half and now vice-president of World Rugby, has made it his mission to change the laws which allow an overseas player to qualify for an adopted country after living there for just three years.

World Rugby members voted on the proposed extension to five years in Kyoto. It is testament to Pichot’s powers of persuasion that he was able to succeed.

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When he started out Pichot had little expectation of success but he insisted that he was doing because it was the right thing to do rather than because, as some suggested, Argentina had no “project players” as they are known. Pichot went to work and with his shoulder at the wheel things started to move and soon picked up momentum.

Josh Strauss is another 'project player' brought to Scotland. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

France unilaterally announced that they would only pick players with a French passport, except in exceptional circumstances. Australia, another nation that had welcomed all comers, agreed to back the five-year extension and most of the major nations fell into line. A change in World Rugby’s voting rights might have helped.

One or two exceptions held out. Romania are thought to be against the change as they have recently attracted a couple of New Zealand players to appear alongside their English winger Jack Cobden, South African lock Johannes van Heerden and Kiwi centre Jack Umaga.

The Scottish Rugby Union also wants to maintain the status quo and issued a statement last week outlining their stance.

“If World Rugby continues with a residency rule then we have been consistent in our position throughout, which is for the retention of the existing 3-year qualification period, given our modest playing pool.”

Josh Strauss is another 'project player' brought to Scotland. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

Murrayfield may have a point about numbers but they have to ask themselves if they have done all they can to grow the grassroots of the game in Scotland and then bent over backwards to retain those young players as they moved into the adult game.

Gregor Townsend has taken over a Scotland squad that is flying high, relatively speaking, with three wins in the Six Nations, fifth in World Rugby’s pecking order and clearly punching above their weight. Some of that success is thanks to the presence of three foreigners in the Scotland squad; Dutchman Tim Visser and South African duo WP Nel and Josh Strauss.

They are three compelling factors in favour of “projects”. A small (unscientific) poll of several of Scotland’s third division clubs showed an even split between those who believed that the national team needed a three-year residency rule to remain competitive in the Test arena and those who were very strongly against the hiring of foreign “mercenaries” after any bedding in period. The issue is a hugely divisive one.

It is easy to understand why the likes of Struass and Ireland’s project player from South Africa CJ Stander move to Europe. The fall in the South African Rand means that they can earn a lot more money in Europe and South Africa has so many good players it can be hard to stand out in the crowd, especially when racial quotas could come between you and a Springboks cap.

But the widespread practice of hiring in project players undermines the integrity of the international game and well as robbing smaller nations, especially Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, of their best young players.

French Top 14 clubs Clermont and Brive have established academies in Fiji with the latter somehow keeping a straight face as they claimed that their tactical bridge head was not established to poach Fiji’s best young rugby talents. An 2016 newspaper article identified 165 Fijians playing professional rugby in France alone.

In recent years England have capped Fijians like Wasps No 8 Nathan Hughes and winger Semesa Rokodunguni of Bath. Fiji’s successful English sevens coach Ben Ryan called the unsavoury mix of agents, middle men and sharks all competing for the signature of the best young Fijians as “the Wild West” and he suggested that the Wallabies could be 50 per cent Fijian in the coming years.

In truth the five year extension is nothing more than a stop gap measure to prevent the worst of the current excesses.

The only long term solution is to make it financially attractive for the islanders to stay at home and represent their own countries. This could mean a Pacific Islands Super Rugby franchise such as Ryan has promoted in the past and/or a split in revenues when a tier two nation plays in Europe.

It was reckoned that the RFU made a handy £10 million when Fiji played at Twickenham last November so earmark a percentage of that take for any tier two visitors and allow them to pay their players a little more than the £400 the Fijians were said to have earned.

Five years is better than three in terms of qualification but the battle for some sort of justice for the Pacific Island nations has only just begun.