Rugby Residency Rules - Should players only play for the land of their birth?
September 17, 20145 min read
The debate of whether or not players from one country should be allowed to play for another country is a one which divides rugby, and the sporting community as a whole.
As things stand, World Rugby residency laws state a player may play for a country if : 1) He was born in that country; 2) Has one parent or grandparent from that country; or 3) Has completed thirty six consecutive months of residence immediately preceding the time of playing.
Over the years, many talented rugby players have chose to play for a country outwith their own nationality by weighing up their options between prioritising patriotism or career gain.
This blog will look at examples of this in Scotland, England and New Zealand.
Two of the most high profile players to represent Scotland under the residency rules in recent times are Sean Maitland, a New Zealander born and bred, and Tim Visser from Holland.
Maitland, of Samoan and Maori descent through his mother, qualifies through a Scotland born grandmother. A key member of the the All Blacks Under-19 2007 World Cup and Under-20 IRB Junior World Championship winning sides, the winger-come-full-back was tipped as s future star for the senior All Blacks squad. However, despite some impressive performances for Crusaders in Super Rugby, he was never called up, leading to the SRU making an approach and Maitland signed a deal with Glasgow Warriors.
Tim Visser on the other hand had a slightly different route. As a teenager, the Flying Dutchman signed for Newcastle Falcons, joined their youth academy set up and represented England Schools at an under 18 level. However, in 2010 he moved to Edinburgh (ironically on the day his three year residency period in England was up) and has since scored an impressive 60 tries in 103 games! After completing 3 years in the country, Visser finally made his international debut with a brace of tries against Fiji.
Naturally, there have been more infamous players arriving on these shores to pull on the famous blue jersey, most notably Brendan ‘Chainsaw’ Laney, who was thrown straight into the Scotland squad by Ian McGeechan just 2 days after arriving from New Zealand in 2001. The Kiwi would go on to earn 20 caps, and equal Gavin Hastings’ record of 100 points in his first 9 Tests.
Despite having over 2.5 million registered rugby players, England are no strangers to using rugby’s residency rules to their advantage.
Manu Tuilagi was born in Samoa but moved to England at a young age. He attended school at John Cleveland College in Leicestershire and joined the Leicester Tigers academy in 2009 and made his first team debut in 2010. Tuilagi said he would prefer to play internationally for England where he had grown up rather than his home nation Samoa/
In comparison, his 6 other brothers who are all also professional rugby players all chose to represent their home nation.
Mike Catt was another example of a overseas player that enjoyed great success with his non-birth country. His mother was English, through whom he qualified to play for England later on. At the time, South Africa was banned from fielding an international side because of the country’s apartheid policy. He therefore decdied to move to England after school to persue his international dream with his mothers home nation.
After joining Bath RFC in 1992, he got his first England call up in 1994 and went on to make an impressive 75 international appearances. He was part of the 2003 winning World Cup team and was the man who kicked the ball into touch in the final to end the game.
He was also part of the 2007 World Cup squad that made it all the way to the final only to be beaten by his home nation South Africa. By appearing in that final, he became the oldest player to play in a World Cup Final at 36 years and 1 month.
At the other end of the success scale, we have Lesley Vainikolo. After a successful rugby league career, representing Canberra Raiders and Bradford Bulls at club level, as well as New Zealand internationally, the Tongan-born winger elected to switch codes and join Gloucester.
With five tries on his debut against Leeds Carnegie, he was off to a flyer and would finish joint 4th in the try scoring charts that season. This lead to an England call up for the 2008 Six Nations and Vainikolo would feature in all five matches. However, he failed to score a single try and was never seen in an England shirt again.
The All Blacks are the most feared team in the rugby world, but yet a disproportionate number of internationals are not born in the country. New Zealand is known for scouting talent in the Pacific Islands, offering them scholarships in their adopted country and bringing them through the system this way.
Mils Muliaina is a perfect example of this. He was offered a rugby scholarship at Kelston Boys' High School in Auckland back in 1998 and went on to represent NZ Secondary Schools XV and had a successful 3 years on this stage.
Due to his impressive performances at this level, Auckland Blues offered him a professional contract in 2001 and Muliaina made his All Blacks debut in 2003 against England and went on to make exactly 100 caps for them – joint fourth highest in All Blacks history.
His last game was during the 2011 World Cup triumph in their homeland. Unfortunately though he was injured in the quarter finals and played no further part in the competition. To this day, he is still the 8th highest try scorer for the All Blacks with 34 tries.
Joe Rokocoko, joint 2nd top try scorer in All Blacks history, was born in Fiji, also ending up on a rugby scholarship at Saint Kentigern College.
Rokocoko was in the news as, despite earning 68 caps for New Zealand, he was aiming to play for the land of his birth at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Due to an iRB loophole, any player who has not appeared for their country for more then 18 months can play for a second country at an iRB Sevens Tournament, in turn making them eligible for the World Cup.
As you can see, there are plenty examples of successes and failures through the residency rules, but ultimately all the fans want to see are the best players turning out at the highest level.