Rugby eligibility loophole ominous for Scotland

Isaia Toeawa has a chance to play for Samoa in the Cup as a result of rugby sevens becoming an Olympic sport. Picture: Getty
Isaia Toeawa has a chance to play for Samoa in the Cup as a result of rugby sevens becoming an Olympic sport. Picture: Getty
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IT ALWAYS looked like one of the more intriguing ties of World Cup, Scotland’s game against Samoa at St James’ Park, Newcastle, on 10 October next year, one year and one month hence. Most assume that South Africa, also in pool B, will progress to the quarter-finals so the Samoan match looks like being crucial to the hopes of both nations. It’s has been sitting on a knife edge until now, too close to call, but the odds have swung towards the island nation in the last 24 hours.

Thanks to Rugby Sevens joining the 2016 Olympics and bringing a passport qualification criteria as a result, a loophole has opened up whereby players who have been capped by one nation can re-qualify for their original country provided they hold a passport and fulfil an 18-month stand down period (to be extended to three years ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup).

So a former All Black of Samoan heritage such as, for example, Isaia Toeava, who last played for New Zealand back in 2011, could turn out for the Samoan Sevens team and, in doing so, qualify to play for their full 15-a-side squad ahead of 2015 World Cup. According to one report in the New Zealand press, that is what the utility back intends to do.

Toeava started his test career against Scotland at Murrayfield way back in 2005 and he went on to win 36 caps, a very handy return for someone who still failed to reach the heights expected of him as a youngster. He helped New Zealand lift the 2011 Rugby World Cup, he is just 28-years-old and would be a great capture for Samoa ahead of the 2015 event.

The Waikato Times names five players, including Toeava, who have opted to make the jump, three Kiwis and two Australians.

Loose forward Fritz Lee and Tim Nanai-Williams, a small but speedy winger, are the other two Kiwis mentioned and both are tied to New Zealand, having turned out for the national sevens team. Both play for the Chiefs in Super Rugby.

The Australian duo appear to be in a different position, since neither Alofa Alofa or Fotu Auelua seem to be tied to Australia. The former is another quick man, a 23-year-old who appeared on the wing for the Waratahs in the Super Rugby final. Auelua is a relative veteran at 30, a leading member of the Brumbies, where he is something of a cult hero for his “no prisoners” style. Auelua captains the Canberra Vikings in the new National Rugby Championship (NRC) having previously spent three years in the south of France with Toulon.

None of the above are quoted in the article, although Samoa’s assistant coach Tom Coventry insists that “lots of players” have contracted the Samoan Rugby Union (SRU) about making the switch. Still, the article may be jumping the gun, at least with Nanai-Williams. Only recently, the Chiefs’ winger gave an interview in which he insisted that becoming an All Black was still his main priority.

“My goal is still to make the All Blacks,” he was quoted as saying. “The end of year tour is definitely the target. If I don’t make that, I will probably take a closer look at playing for Samoa.”

If his Kiwi colleague Fritz Lee does line up against Scotland come the World Cup, he won’t be an unknown quality since he plays at Clermont and did so for a year under the current Scotland coach Vern Cotter. There is a question mark over whether the French club would release him to play in the IRB Sevens series to ensure he becomes eligible and, if they refuse, he may have to wait until Samoa go into the Oceania qualification tournament, presuming they don’t finish in the top four of the IRB Sevens series who go through to Rio automatically.

Of course, the Samoan refuseniks must also persuade the IRB’s regulations committee that they are playing sevens because of a love of the game rather than simply to facilitate the switch in international rugby [for those who are already capped]. They should be careful what they say in public lest it be held in evidence against them but Samoans should have little trouble persuading even the biggest IRB sceptic that they love sevens.

If that wasn’t enough, Samoa have sealed a new sponsorship deal which promises financial incentives, US$250,000 for reaching the semi-finals and a round $1million for winning the William Webb Ellis Trophy. Additional finance will ensure that this is the best prepared Samoan squad to reach the World Cup.

It isn’t so much the fact that five players may want to return for Samoa, it is more the worry that those five may be just the tip of the iceberg. The tiny Pacific islands (there are two main ones) have always produced a ready supply of top-class players and, if the majority of those in the international wilderness decide to turn out for Manu Samoa, they won’t just expect to beat Scotland, they will hope to top the pool.

GAME CHANGERS

Five former All Blacks Samoa might call on:

Casey Laulala

Brilliant 32-year-old centre playing for Racing ‘92 after time quitting Munster.

Mils Muliaina

A century of All Black caps and the Connacht full-back still has plenty to offer.

Rudi Wulf

The 33-year-old winger who is among the “Galacticos” at Toulon.

John Afoa

A very useful tighthead prop currently with Gloucester after several seasons at Ulster.

Jerry Collins

Formerly of Toulon and Ospreys, he is currently working as a security guard in Alberta, Canada but is still only 33 years old.