Iain Morrison: World Rugby punishment doesn’t fit the ‘crime’

In the qualifiers between Belgium and Spain both teams fielded ineligible players. Photograph: Getty Images
In the qualifiers between Belgium and Spain both teams fielded ineligible players. Photograph: Getty Images
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Scotland have played Spain only once, a thumping 48-0 win at Murrayfield during the 1999 Rugby World Cup, a game that marked Chris Paterson’s international debut.

Better known as sevens specialists, Spain won’t be at next year’s World Cup in Japan after they, Belgium and Romania all had points deducted by an independent disciplinary committee set up by World Rugby. Spain had selected two players, Mathieu Belie and Bastien Fuster, who previously played for France Under-20s when that team were France’s designated second team and, stay with me here, they must have played in a match against another U20s side, who were also that nation’s designated second team, for them to have been “captured” by France.

Belgium reportedly played five ineligible players at various times while Romania selected only one. Centre Siona Faka’osilea had previously turned out for the Tongan sevens team, which also captures him for the island nation.

Romania’s defence, “we checked Wikipedia”, was probably better left on the shelf but the above examples do underline a few things. Firstly the three nations did not do due diligence and secondly, World Rugby’s eligibility rules are overly complicated and the punishment overly harsh. The game has different eligibility for sevens than it does for 15s which is bonkers. World Rugby had to keep the International Olympic Committee sweet by adopting its eligibility laws (passport) or sevens would never have squeezed into the Rio Olympics. A passport qualification would simplify the 15-man game and, just possibly, prevent some of the worst poaching of talent from tier two nations.

Then there is the brouhaha outlined above about what a country’s designated second side was, when it was designated as such and whether it played against another team that was also their nation’s designated second team at the time of asking. It’s crazy. Even the independent disciplinary committee suggested that World Rugby (rather than individual nations) should be responsible for keeping a database of “captured” players in the future such is the difficulty in determining who is and who is not.

Romania are contesting the decision (Spain are keeping their council) but, unless they are successful the points deductions mean that neither country will appear in Japan in 2019. Russia have been promoted into Scotland’s Pool A for the tournament while Germany have a play-off against Portugal for the dubious honour of another play-off involving home and away fixtures against Samoa for a place at the World Cup.

Romania have yet to miss a World Cup and gave Italy a fright three years ago. Japan 2019 would have been Spain’s second appearance, 20 years after their first. World Cup inclusion gives a huge boost to the game in the hinterland of European rugby and you have to ask if double standards are at work.

In your wildest dreams can you ever imagine England or New Zealand suffering the same fate if they inadvertently fielded an ineligible player?

And you don’t need to exercise your imagination when it comes to Scotland and Wales because both did exactly that. Brett Sinkinson and Shane Howarth did just one tour of duty for Wales at the 1999 World Cup whereas Dave Hilton, pictured, played for Scotland throughout the 1995 and 1999 tournaments, playing against Spain in the latter.

The trio all claimed they qualified to play for their country through family links but it transpired that none of them was eligible, sparking the infamous “Grannygate” scandal.

Perhaps Spain should demand a re-run of that ’99 match in light of the fact that Hilton’s “Scottish” grandfather hailed from, er, Bristol. The sanction against Wales and Scotland for this egregious flouting of the laws? A reprimand.

World Rugby is infamous for dealing differently with the game’s have-nots.

Following the ruling on Spain, Belgium and Romania, the governing body released this statement: “Regulation 8 covering eligibility is essential to maintaining the unique characteristics and culture of elite competitions between unions, and the integrity of international matches depends on strict adherence to eligibility criteria set out in the regulation.”

A lecture on the “integrity of the international matches” is a bit much coming from a body that has presided over an era when the international game has been hopelessly compromised by their idiotic three- (now five-) year residency rule, a rule by which the adoption of foreign players has become commonplace and the subsequent dilution of Test match rugby just when French/English clubs are flexing their muscles.

World Rugby has brought this unholy mess upon itself.