Project Players Are Undermining Rugby

On Tuesday it was announced that Chiefs hooker Rhys Marshall signed a three year deal with Munster. The 23 year old Kiwi’s contract is for three years, and with good reason. It makes him the latest in a string of ‘project players’. This means he won’t take up a Non-Irish qualified spot in the Munster squad (limited to four by the IRFU).

Marshall will be available for Ireland for the 2020 Six Nations Championship thanks to World Rugby‘s regulation 8.3.c. Steps must be taken to change this practice before national teams are entirely made up of these project players and lose their identity.

What are Project players?

Project players is the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) term for uncapped overseas players, signed by provinces with the long term goal of making them Irish internationals. As long as they haven’t played for either a senior, or next most prestigious (e.g. England Saxons, Emerging Springboks, Scotland A, Wales Under 20s) national team. Both Ireland and Scotland have official policies encouraging this type of signing and currently have several in their test squads.

The archetypal project player is CJ Stander. Stander (main picture) joined Munster in 2012 after one season of Super Rugby with the Bulls, having also been called up to the Springboks training squad. The Munster back row was under pressure to switch to hooker from coaches, and almost left the game altogether before Munster called. He instantly became a star in Limerick and went on to play the first Ireland match he was eligible for.

Other notable project players include: Jared Payne, Josh Strauss, WP Nel, Riki Flutey, Scott Spedding, Kane Hesketh and Henry Speight.

What are World Rugby doing about it?

This morning World Rugby established a working group looking into regulation 8. Augustin Pichot, World Rugby’s vice-chairman, has long been critical of the rule and is acutely aware of the need to maintain national team’s “identity”. Pichot has suggested a more permanent arrangement like in football, but has floated the idea of making it five years as a compromise. It is not yet clear when the regulation will change but the working group shows a positive step by World Rugby towards fixing it.

Why does there need to be a rule?

Nationality is not an entirely straightforward concept, especially in our modern, ever smaller world. While it would be easy to just go by citizenship, it’s not a perfect system. In athletics, there are several cases of athletes, particularly African born, being offered big money to switch allegiances.

The rules have to cover a large variety of cases such as:

  • Born in the country, this covers the plurality of international players.
  • Born overseas to parents of your given nation, then moving back in early life – this covers Jamie Heaslip, Ronan O’Gara and George North.
  • Born overseas but moved to your given nation in early life, came through their youth system – this covers Stephen Moore, Billy Vunipola and Jerome Kaino.
  • Grew up overseas but parents are from your given nation – this covers Alex Cuthbert, Henry Pyrgos and Sergio Parisse.

Up to this point most people would agree, those are acceptable reasons to represent a national team, it’s the next few categories that become the grey area:

  • Have a grandparent from your given nation – this is Michael Bent, Tomas Francis and John Hardie.
  • Players who moved to their given nation as a teenager, completing some schooling there – this is Manu Tuilagi, Tevita Kuridrani and Waisake Naholo.

Grey area – Senior Rugby

Then there is a slightly grey area, people who played no senior rugby before moving. The prime example of this is Mouritz Botha who was told he was ‘too light to play’ in the second row. He moved to England to play part time for the Bedford Blues while drying carpets for a living. Botha went on to play for England, and it’s hard to justify forcing a player who has never played in a country to play for them. Botha didn’t play a senior game in South Africa until he was 33 years old.

Project players
Mouritz Botha of England poses for a portrait on August 7, 2012 in Loughborough, (Photo by David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

The final category is the ‘special project players’. That is established professional players who moved overseas for better wages, and the chance of Test rugby.

The solution is

A licence system would simplify the process massively. Upon registering as a senior player, you declare your nationality. This can be either the country you live in, the country of your parents or where you were born. At 18, you make the choice, and that choice follows you forever.

By 18, national identities are well established, Irish kids living in England know which team they want to play for. Samoan boys and girls in New Zealand likewise. If you grew up wanting to be an All Black, you say so. If that doesn’t work out, it’s a shame, but Tonga shouldn’t be a fallback option. This is really what rugby fans want, players that grew up wanting to wear the jersey. If an England player has a strong Aussie accent, but fans know he always wanted to wear the rose, they will embrace him. If he wanted to be a Wallaby, but chose England for professional reasons, that door would be closed.

This system cuts out all of the mercenaries and crystallizes what it means to be from somewhere. Those with genuine links and genuine ambitions can fulfill their dreams. The choice will be taken out of the hands of the unions and restore fans confidence in the international game.

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