Relaxing eligibility rules would strengthen global rugby, says Pivac

Wales coach Wayne Pivac says that a potential easing of currently stringent player eligibility rules by World Rugby would strengthen the game globally and make the World Cup more competitive.

As commentators go, Pivac is as well placed as any: a New Zealander who coached in the Polynesian melting pot that is Auckland and, between 2004 and 2007, also coached Fiji, whom Wales play in Cardiff on Sunday.

Under current World Rugby rules, a player is ‘locked’ to the one country they opt to play for, although there is a loophole that allows nationality transfers should a player turn out in Olympic rugby sevens qualifiers.

World Rugby, however, is reportedly meeting on 24 November to vote on changing the eligibility criteria to allow players to switch nations after a three-year stand-down period, provided their parents or grandparents were born in the nation to which they’re intending to transfer their allegiances.

“So long as there’s a stand-down period and it’s not from one nation to the next in five minutes, I see benefits as opposed to too many negatives,” said Pivac, citing the case of explosive wing Joeli Vidiri.

Vidiri was Fiji-born and represented the country in both sevens and 15s before relocating to New Zealand, where he went on to win two caps for the All Blacks in 1998.

“Joeli Vidiri was a fantastic winger in New Zealand,” Pivac said. “But he played one or two Test matches, there were that many good wingers at the time of Jonah Lomu.

“It just seems a shame that after [two] caps that he couldn’t play 50 caps for Fiji and he would easily have played 50 times for Fiji.”

Vidiri is just one of many players of Pacific Island birth or heritage picked for tier-one countries, but who remain in the international wilderness having won just a handful of caps for their adopted country.

Tonga captain and scrumhalf Sonatane Takulua fully backed a change to the rules as a way to boosting tier-two teams.

“I think that everyone who supports tier-two countries would love the rules to change; it would make the game more interesting,” he told Rugby World magazine.

“All the top, top players in the world could compete against each other on the top stage. Malakai Fekitoa can play for us now [after playing for Tonga in an Olympics qualifier] and there are a lot of top players out there, like Charles Piutau, Ngani Laumape, Vaea Fifita, who is now at Wasps, who would like to play for Tonga.”

Pivac called the situation “a loss to the global game, to be honest. There are that many fantastic Pacific Island players playing for other nations”.

“For them to be able to go back after a stand-down period I think is just going to strengthen island nations, which strengthens world rugby, gives you more competition in World Cups and pool play.”

When World Rugby meets, 75% of the member unions – 39 out of 52 – would need to agree with the changes for them to advance.

“We can’t compete with other countries with the resources they can throw around,” Peter Harding, chief executive of the Tongan Rugby Union, told the Telegraph newspaper.

“We are a country with 100,000 people, so getting a little bit of help in competing is not too much to ask,” he said, with Tonga having suffered two successive thrashings over the past two weekends, losing 60-14 to Scotland and 69-3 to England.

Harding added: “The best players in the world come from here, so everyone is always after them … this would be a gamechanger if we can get some of those players back.

“If you include the first-generation players then there’s well over 1,000 players in other countries because they have emigrated for better opportunities.”

© Agence France-Presse

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