I’ve been watching lots of the Rugby World Cup over the past couple of weeks and i suspect I shall be watching more as the competition gets “down to the wire”, i.e. the knockout phase. I’ve seen some great matches. My only problem is that I booked a holiday to Italy in mid-October and we’ll be there while the semi-finals and final are being played. Even that’s not a problem though; we’ll be visiting my Welsh cousin and her Italian husband of 25 years and I know they are both keen rugby fans; televisual access will be available, I am sure.

This morning I told myself that I would do some work and not watch Japan vs Tonga, as those two are very much the also-rans in a group containing New Zealand and France. However, my resolution was weak and I switched on for ten minutes just before half-time. What did I discover?


I saw a try for Japan, by one Michael Leitch. Also in the team were Sean Webb and James Arledge, though I might have got the latter’s name slightly wrong. Anyway, all three were clearly imports, under the rule that allows rugby players to qualify for their adoptive country by virtue of a couple of years’ residence.


Yes, I hear you say, but this is hardly new. Years ago, Wales fielded several players who had been born and brought up elsewhere but had a a Welsh grandparent, giving rise to the term “grannygate”. Shane Howarth was, I think, the first player to get a cap for Wales under this rule.


However, the game moved swiftly on. Players with no family connections were registered under the residency rule. I recall France fielding a centre called Tony Marsh. Not a French name, that, you might say, and you’d be right. He was Australian and I think he was one of the first to benefit from the residency rule.

Nowadays, it’s gone crazy. New Zealand has for years been poaching players from the Pacific Islands and I am pretty sure I heard today’s commentator refer to one of the Tongan players having been brought up in Australia. So the deal is this; if you are one of the top players in a second-tier country, then you might welcome being poached by a top nation. If, on the other hand, you were born and brought up in a top country, say NZ, but are not quite good enough to make the All-Black team, then you could consider moving to another country so you can play international rugby. Thus we have two current England centres, Shontayne Hape and Manu Tuilagi, who are imports; a third centre, Ricki Flutey, also an import, was an England regular a couple of  years ago but didn’t make this World Cup. In the case of Tuilagi, he’s one of a family of top-class players and his brother is in this World Cup playing for Samoa. Wales too have Toby Falatao, whose dad played for Tonga, I think.


So where am I going with this? A good question.

Club football (that’s soccer, for any Americans reading this), as played in the English Premier League, is now at a higher standard than ever, mostly because clubs import from anywhere in the world. Players are an internationally traded commodity. But the England football team, although it has done really badly in big tournaments for years, does not “import” foreign players who might be good enough to play for England but are not good enough to get into their own country’s team. Is that because the rules forbid it? I’d love to know.


In international rugby it’s so different. If I’m right,  soon the labels England, Wales etc, will be no more than that: labels for a business, a franchise, that buys the best players it can afford, in order to play against other “countries”, most (but not all) of whom work on the same principle.

Sometimes, however and joyfully, the extra passion engendered by players inspired by playing for their country (note that my non-cynical side dropped the quotation marks there) will help them to prevail over a team that’s stronger on paper.


Cricket has been going this way for ages. A few years ago, England won a one-day cricket world cup; don’t ask me if it was the t20 or the 50-over, as I am not a fan of The Pyjama Game, as I call the short variants. Call me old-fashioned if you like. Anyway, a wag of a journalist summed it up as follows: “Our South Africans are better than anyone else’s South Africans. They are better than South Africa’s South Africans. And if Australia wants to start winning at cricket again, they had better find themselves some good South Africans too.”

I rest my case … whatever it was.