Rugby’s lax rules on nationality are creating more controversy than ever, with 134 foreign-born players selected to play at the World Cup in Japan.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup will feature a Scotsman playing for Canada, a Canadian playing for Ireland, an Irishman playing for the USA, an American playing for England, an Englishman playing for Fiji, a Fijian playing for Australia, an Australian playing for Samoa, a Samoan playing for New Zealand and a New Zealander playing for just about everyone.
To the casual fan, an intrinsic part of international rugby union.
The ease with which player can move abroad, naturalize and begin representing a country to which they had no former ties is a loophole that has been exploited by most rugby-playing nations.
World Rugby laws only require players to live in a country for three years before being eligible for the national team.
By contrast, FIFA require footballers to live in a country for at least five years before they can take part in international football.
England, who are regularly accused of abusing eligibility laws, have selected scrum-half Willi Heinz, who was born and raised in New Zealand and has just three caps to his name.
Ireland have also been criticized for their decision to leave out 67-cap lock Devin Toner in favor of South African Jean Kleyn, who only qualified to play for them in August.
Things are set to change with World Rugby bringing their eligibility laws in line with FIFA by increasing the qualification period to five years at the end of 2020.
Driven by vice president Agustin Pichot, this is an attempt to protect smaller nations from losing their best talents while helping all sides maintain their national identity.
So how are the new rules set to affect the landscape of international rugby union? And which countries will be most affected by these new regulations?
Looking at the makeup of every World Cup squad and the statistics behind naturalization at the tournament can help us find the answers.
But, with just three of the 20 squads competing in Japan containing no foreign-born players, this is set to be a deep-rooted issue.
Three countries – Tonga, Samoa and Japan – have more foreign-born players than home-grown. Scotland, the USA and Australia are not far behind.
These are the six nations that, on the face of it, are benefiting most from rugby’s lax eligibility requirements and will, therefore, suffer more than others when the new rules are introduced next year.
Samoa and Tonga have never been beneficiaries of the system, but rather nations whose talent pools have been drained by Australia and New Zealand.
These Pacific Islanders, along with Fiji, have seen many of their top players poached by the Southern Hemisphere giants over the years, lured by the riches of Super Rugby and the prospect of playing at the very highest level.
They do field many Aussies and Kiwis themselves, but these are players with family ties to the Pacific.
A player returning to their roots is not a phenomenon limited to rugby, and would definitely not change because of the new laws.
Samoa, Tonga and Fiji should, then, feel the positive effects of the imminent changes by being able to retain their best players over the coming years.
But the same cannot be said for the other four countries in question.
Unfortunately for Japan, the tournament hosts look likely to be hit hardest when the new rules come into play.
Their lucrative Top Rugby competition lures players from around the world, with most of their current foreign contingent qualifying after playing domestically for three years.
Five years is a different prospect entirely, and the Brave Blossoms will have to blood more local talent in the years to come.
This will likely mean an initial dip in performances on the pitch, followed by a slow improvement in the standard of Japanese rugby as youngsters are given more of a chance to flourish.
The USA will be in a similar position, with many of their foreign-born players qualifying during university stints or by playing in their burgeoning Major League Rugby competition.
Scotland and Australia may lose out on a couple of potential ‘project players’ – those from abroad earmarked for naturalization – but their relative riches should shield them from any real loss of depth after 2020.
That should be the case for the other top-tier nations, who will have enough domestic talent to make up for any loss of talent from abroad.
So, will the new rules have the desired effect? In a word, yes.
Bigger nations will be forced to use their own, while smaller countries will become more competitive as they retain their best talent.
Players will be rewarded for their loyalty, and the identity of every national team will slowly grow stronger.
These changes should have come years ago, with naturalization allowed to become embedded in the fabric of the game.
However, this is a milestone towards the evolution of international rugby into a more authentic, competitive beast.
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