World Rugby toughens player eligibility rules in order to stem Pacific Island exodus to major nations

Joe Hall
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Semesa Rokoduguni England Training Session
Semesa Rokoduguni would have been ineligible for England under the current rules (Source: Getty)

International rugby sides will find it harder to call up players on residency grounds after the game's world governing body toughened its rules in order to protect the "integrity and credibility" of the sport.

From 2020 players will have had to live in a country for at least five years before being eligible to play for their national team, an extension on the current minimum three years.

In recent seasons England, Ireland and France have all benefited from the three-year rule, which has allowed them to call up Nathan Hughes, CJ Stander and Vrimi Vakatawa respectively.

Yet there has been growing criticism within the game - spearheaded by World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot - that the current rules allow larger rugby nations to lure talent away from smaller countries, and in particular the Pacific Islands, and groom them for a spot in the national team.

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"This extension to the residency period within a forward-thinking reform package will ensure a close, credible and established link between a union and players, which is good for rugby and good for fans," said World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont.

"I would like to thank my union colleagues for their support and in particular the leadership role that Agustín Pichot played in this very important process that has delivered an outcome that is good for the global game."

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) and French federation are also believed to have backed the rule change, with the latter already publicly stating they will from now on only select French passport holders.

Last year Les Bleus played a match against Australian in which all four of their wingers were born in Fiji.

The Pacific Islands have been particularly affected by an exodus of their most talented players leaving with the promise of a relatively imminent international career in Europe.

“This is an historic moment for the sport and a great step towards protecting the integrity, ethos and stature of international rugby,” said Pichot.

“National team representation is the reward for devoting your career and your rugby life to your nation. These amendments will ensure that the international arena is full of players devoted to their nation, who got there on merit.”

Internationals who have benefited from the three-year requirement

Nathan Hughes - England The Fijian-born Hughes moved to Wasps in 2013 and promptly made his England debut three years later against Australia last November.
Henry Speight - Australia Son of a Fijian politician and grandson of the country's president, who spent his teenage years in New Zealand, Speight nevertheless opted to play for Australia after moving there in 2011. He has been capped 10 times for the Wallabies since 2014.
Denny Solomana - England The 23-year-old rugbly league convert has been selected for England's tour of Argentina this summer, after moving to England in 2014. He has been capped for Samoa in rugby league.
Semesa Rokoduguni - England Another Fiji-born player, Rokoduguni also served in the British Army in Afghanistan before moving to England in 2011.
Vrimi Vakatawa - France The Fiji-born back moved to Racing Metro in 2011 and was called up to France's 7s team at the earliest opportunity in 2013. Has since gained 12 caps for the 15s team.
Sefa Naivalu - Australia Naivalu, born in - you guessed it - Fiji, moved to Australia at the end of 2013 and was capped for the Wallabies at the end of 2016.
CJ Stander - Ireland The 27-year-old has been a regular fixture in Ireland's side since opting to play for them over South Africa in 2016. The back rower played for the U-18 and U-20 Springboks sides before moving to Munster in 2012. Has been called up to this year's British and Irish Lions squad.
W.P. Nel - Scotland The 31-year-old was never picked by South Africa following four years as a professional in his country as birth, but made it into the Scotland side in 2015 after three years at Edinburgh.

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