Sagas around Webb and Taumalalo show why it’s time to sort out the international eligibility roulette once and for all

Alex Broun 16:00 21/10/2017
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Jason Taumalolo.

It’s time to sort out the international eligibility roulette once and for all

Eligibility, which country you play for and when, has been a hot topic this year in both rugby codes.

The issue became a real talking point several weeks back with the defection of eight New Zealand players, including their star Jason Taumalolo, and one Australian, to play for Tonga in the Rugby League World Cup (RLWC).

In Taumalolo’s case the defection bordered on the farcical as just a week previously he had appeared at a RLWC media event representing New Zealand. You can expect quite a bit of spice on November 11 in Hamilton when Taumalolo faces his old team-mates.

Eligibility of a different kind has now split the Rugby Union world with Wales suddenly changing their rules and British and Irish Lions scrum-half Rhys Webb finding himself on the outer after his decision to sign with Toulon next season.

Previously the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) had allowed coach Warren Gatland four ‘wildcard’ picks of players playing outside Wales for his national side. But they now have adopted a rule the Australian Rugby Union brought in a few years ago saying only foreign-based players who have played 60 Tests are eligible for selection.

Webb has only played 28 Tests so he is now ineligible for the team although the rule only changed after he signed for the French club.

Meanwhile, in football, to further highlight the issue – FIFA have now weighed in by suggesting they may relax their own strict eligibility rules.

Football had its own problems back in July when French Guiana were fined and forced to forfeit a match after ex-France mid-fielder Florent Malouda played for them in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Malouda was born in Cayenne in French Guiana, hence they had no problem selecting him for their representative team, and since French Guiana are not members of FIFA there was no issue with him playing for them previously in friendly matches.

It was only because the Gold Cup was played under FIFA eligibility rules that suddenly Malouda was illegal.

Now FIFA are considering changing their rules to help teams like French Guiana in future.

“There are so many issues that have popped up over the years because the world is changing, immigration is changing,” said Victor Montagliani, president of CONCACAF.

“There are nationality issues that pop up all over the world, in Africa, there are issues in Asia and CONCACAF, so its a good time to have a look at this and see if there are solutions, without hurting the integrity of the game.”

At present in football, players who have played a competitive international for one team cannot switch to another nation even when they hold dual nationality.

Cape Verde have proposed this rule be relaxed in cases where the player has played only one or two games for his original national side but has no realistic chance of a recall.

FIFA could also look into a compensation scheme in cases where a player goes through the training system of one country and represents it a youth level before switching to another.

Rugby now follows a similar line to football where if a player represents one country at senior level they can not play for another.

This is very harsh on the island nations such as Tonga, Samoa and Fiji who consistently lose players to ‘bigger’ rugby countries like Australia and New Zealand, although the players are often discarded after a few tests, like Taqele Naiyaravoro or Radike Samo.

League follows an overly flexible route where players can simply nominate before a tournament which nation to play for under birth, heritage or residency criteria, which leads to situations like Taumalolo.

On one side you want an even playing field with nations being as strong as possible and smaller countries not being pillaged by the larger ones, but on the other hand if a player changes nations like they change clubs it can make international tournaments untenable.

A delicate balance needs to be struck in international tournaments between integrity and competitiveness and FIFA’s suggested changes may well be the way towards reaching that.

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