Nationality in sport: A review of World Rugby’s new 5-year residency rule

Published 25 May 2017 By: Luke Sayer

Rugby player on field with ball in mist

On 10 May, World Rugby voted at its Council meeting in Kyoto, Japan, to increase the period of residency to become eligible for an international team from three years to a more stringent five years[1]. This amendment will be effective from 31 December 2020. The decision was made in an attempt to curtail the number of players representing countries for which they have no ancestral ties.

This article reviews the current World Rugby Regulations (the Regulations) in respect of residency; why a change was necessary; whether it will have any effect; and an analysis of the position generally.


The current regulations 

The Regulations state at Section 8.1[2] that in order to represent a national side, a player must have either:

  1. been born in that country;

  2. had a parent or grandparent born in that country; or

  3. have completed thirty six consecutive months of Residence immediately preceding the time of playing.

Section 8.2 excludes any player who may qualify under Section 8.1 (above) that has

"played for the senior fifteen-a-side National Representative Team or the next senior fifteen-a-side National Representation Team or the senior National Representative Sevens Team of a Union".

As an example, a player cannot represent the All Blacks and three years later play for England just because he has completed the requisite residency period, or has the necessary ancestral tie. However, as will be explained below, it is possible to represent one country through age-group rugby, yet run out for another country's senior national team.


Was a change necessary? 

On 19 November 2016, France hosted Australia in an Autumn International[3]. The four wingers that night were all born in Fiji but had qualified for their respective teams as a result of meeting the residency requirements of Section 8.1 (c) of the Regulations.

Following the career of one of those wingers, "France's" Virimi Vakatawa helps illustrate how players can be recruited by other nations. The story of Vakatawa's rugby ascension starts in 2010, when the Parisian team, Racing 92's head coach asked two of his Fijian players if they knew of any young wingers back home in Fiji with potential. They pointed their coach in the direction of Vakatawa who, at that time, was representing the Fijian U18 side. Calls were made, flights booked, and Vakatawa signed shortly after. Thereafter, Vakatawa left Racing 92 for a central sevens contract with the French rugby federation, reputed to be €10,000 a month, double the average for a member of the France Sevens squad[4].

This was viewed as a calculated recruitment drive from a French club. In turn, it has benefitted the French national side. The nation it has not benefitted is Fiji. This applies for all of the wingers that played in Paris that evening - junior representatives of Fiji who have been recruited by other nations with greater financial power. As an example of the financial imbalance, for the test match in 2016 against England, Fiji's players received a miserly £400 each compared to their English counterparts, who were paid £22,000 for the match[5]. Indeed, Fijian born number 8, Nathan Hughes, played for England in that game (having qualified after three years residency) and before the game said

"I would love for Fiji to have more resources, but it is the way it is…That's the decision I made – I play my rugby to support my family and put shelter over their heads"[6].

England and France are not alone. Ireland has adopted a policy of "Project Players[7]" (foreign-born players who play for another country after a three-year residency), with the express purpose of nurturing them to fill a position of weakness in a particular team. Ireland flanker, and now a Lions tourist, CJ Stander is an example of this. Capped 10 times by South Africa U20's, he moved to Ireland in 2012 and made his Irish debut in 2016.

The above examples show how players are able to move across the globe and represent nations other than their birth countries, or their grandparent's birth countries. This transition is permitted by Section 8.1 (c) and can at times deprive poorer nations of their best players – particularly in the case of the Fijian players. The process has showed no signs of slowing up and the gap between the top tier rugby nations and tier two nations is growing, as demonstrated by recent results[8].


What effect will the change have? 

The question to answer is - will an extension of the qualifying period from three years to five have any effect?

A difference of two years may not seem large, but in the context of the average lifespan (estimated to be 7 years by an Irish study[9]) of an international rugby career it could have potentially significant implications for players who wish to qualify to play for a new country through residency[10]. Importantly, it is a longer period than the time between Rugby World Cups (four years), meaning that a "Project Player" would be forced to sit out of at least one World Cup. Faced with that restriction, coaches could decide that it is better to groom younger players and offer them five years of exposure to international rugby rather than wait for the eligibility of another. Ultimately, time will tell what kind of effect the change has. Of course there is the possibility that the concept of "Project Players" will be revised and players "poached" at a younger age[11].

A possible advantage of the extension is that if it deters nations from scouring the globe for possible Project Players, it would likely avoid certain financial outlay such as wages for those Project Players but also fees spent on scouts used to source those players. These savings could be utilised at grass-roots rugby and academies to work towards building talent that could render Project Players unnecessary[12].


Analysis of the position generally

In the author’s view, World Rugby has correctly identified the need to protect second tier nations by increasing the residency period required to qualify. However, there are other changes that could have been made if World Rugby wanted to tighten the eligibility rules even further.

Section 8 permits representation of a national team if a player had a grandparent born in that country. At times, this can be a rather tenuous connection. Thomas Waldrom originally moved to England from New Zealand, with the aim of qualifying to wear the red rose of English Rugby on residency grounds however, during his first season he discovered that he had an English grandmother, which sped up and completed the process. He told the Leicester Mercury:

I remembered reading that my grandmother was English. I rang up my mum in New Zealand and asked if Nana was born in England. She said yes, and that she also had the birth certificate to prove it[13]

So Waldrom satisfied the criteria but given he wasn’t even sure on his arrival to England, it does seem a rather convenient outcome. An obvious solution is to insist that at least one parent was born in the country the player will be eligible for.

As we have seen, Section 8.2 prohibits a player who has played for the senior fifteen-a-side National Representative Team or the next senior fifteen-a-side National Representation Team or the senior National Representative Sevens Team of a Union from representing a separate Nation Representation Team. The difficulty with a fair implementation of this section is that “next senior fifteen-a-side National Representation Team” is applied inconsistently across different nations. For example, the Saxons are England’s second team and the Wolfhounds are Ireland’s. However, both Wales and France have designated their U20’s as their “next senior fifteen-a-side National Representation Team.[14] 

As an example of the inconsistency this can result in, Ross Moriarty, the Wales and British Lions back-row forward, represented England U20 at the same World Championships as his then team-mates Maro Itoje, Jack Nowell and others. As England does not consider the U20’s as its second side, he was eligible to play for Wales at senior level. Conversely, Steve Shingler represented Wales U20, was signed by London Irish as an English-qualified player (his father was born in England) then Scotland picked him in their Six Nations squad (his mother is Scottish). Wales disputed the call-up and it was determined that because Shingler had played for Wales U20 against France U20 (at that stage a payer was only “captured” if they had played against another designated second team) he was indeed tied to Wales[15].

A solution to the above inconsistency is to add a provision to the Regulations that provides playing for a national representative team at U20 level or above prohibits you from playing for a separate nation in the future. An added advantage is that it would prevent certain nations using the U20 World Championships as a shop window. Samoa would welcome this after three of their players in the 2014 U20 World Championships appeared for New Zealand U20 at the 2015 edition of the tournament. For the record, in 2015, New Zealand won that tournament and Samoa finished last[16].

The issue of eligibility for national representation is prevalent throughout sport generally. In Ice Hockey[17], a player can represent two different national sides at senior level provided there is a four-year gap between the two. The world of athletics has also suffered from athletes changing national allegiances. Earlier this year, the IAAF put an immediate freeze on athletes switching nationality. Its president, Lord Coe said “It has become abundantly clear with regular multiple transfers of athletes especially from Africa that the present rules are no longer fit for purpose. Athletics, which at its highest levels of competition is a championship sport based upon national teams, is particularly vulnerable in this respect. Furthermore, the present rules do not offer the protections necessary to the individual athletes involved and are open to abuse.[18]" The exact provisions for the reform will be addressed by the end of 2017.

The examples of Ice Hockey and Athletics offer two contrasting views. The revisions to Article 8 of the Regulations is somewhere in between. The change matches the residency requirement posed by FIFA and it is difficult to list a host of players who have crossed over from different nations. Indeed, FIFA implemented its own change in 2008 to safeguard young players from being exploited. FIFA's new wording from 2008 (for residence purposes) stated that a player was only eligible to play for the new representative team if he had lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant Association[19].



In the author's view, the amendment to Section 8.1 (c) is a welcome one. Whilst there are grounds for making further changes as suggested above, time will tell whether or not the solitary change is sufficient to protect the weaker and poorer nations. If nothing else, the change was recognition by World Rugby of the widening gap between the top tier nations and the second tier nations.


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Luke Sayer

Luke Sayer

Luke is a lawyer specialising in litigation, both commercial and civil, regulatory matters, employment law and image rights with Carey Olsen, Guernsey. Luke has a wide range of experience from his five years as a qualified solicitor. Luke has a passion for sports law and is interested in most sports particularly rugby, football, athletics, and cricket. He previously represented England Students and Leicester Tigers at rugby union whilst attending the University of Nottingham.


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