A tough task tackling rugby’s national question

Nkosi sikalel’ iAfrika, which we heard in Dublin six days ago, is basically two songs mingled to make up South Africa’s beautiful national anthem and its status as a unifying number for the Rainbow Nation is confirmed by the five languages used in its delivery.

Add in Ireland’s Call and Amhrán na bhFiann last Saturday at the Aviva and what we had was, effectively, four different anthems, seven languages and 311 words sung with pride and gusto and with Richardt Strauss’ effort ‘as gaeilge’ stealing the show before he represented his adopted country against that of his birth and upbringing.

One can only applaud Strauss for that performance but the sight of the Leinster hooker and Kiwi Michael Bent wearing the shamrock on the world stage didn’t meet with universal approval even if their displays suggested both may well prove to be very handy operators at the coal face in the years to come.

Yet, what is nationality, really? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “the status of belonging to a particular nation” which, as a definition or parameter, is ridiculously vague and malleable but then international sports can be just as ambiguous when it comes to nailing these things down.

The International Rugby Board’s regulation 8.1 states that a player may only play for one national side of the country in which a) he was born or b) one parent or grandparent was born or c) he has completed 36 consecutive months of residence. There are other factors that apply but those there are the basics.

Fairly cut and dried, all told, but those three conditions contain within them an almost infinite number of scenarios that led to a situation whereby 15% of the players who featured in the six Test fixtures in Europe last week were born outside of the country they represented — and that doesn’t include the likes of Jamie Heaslip who happened to be born in Israel.

Researching those facts and figures proved to be a long, frustrating but ultimately fascinating exercise. It was one that threw up divided loyalties, quirky tales and, at times, statistics that simply did not align with universal perceptions when it comes to which nations are more proactive with imported talent.

Among the more standout discoveries was the fact that, for all the criticism Australia and New Zealand have shipped for poaching South Seas talent in recent decades, neither country fielded a single player born in the Pacific Islands at any point during their games in Edinburgh and Paris last weekend.

If anything, the player drain was flowing in quite the opposite direction given Fiji and Tonga fielded half-a-dozen players between them whose birth certs were filled out in places like Sydney, Auckland, Manly and New Plymouth.

The All Blacks did use two Aussie-born blokes but both have spent most of their lives on the New Zealand side of the Tasman while the Wallabies had no qualms about fielding Mike Harris, a man who passed 21 of his 24 years on this planet at his home in North Harbour before jumping ship for the Queensland Reds and the green and gold.

“I’m pleased that he’s achieved his dream,” said All Black coach Steve Hansen recently, with all the irony he could muster. Those and even strong sentiments besides prompted a war of words with Australia coach Robbie Deans about what he termed as the ARU’s “pinching” of Kiwi talent.

Heyneke Meyer wasn’t nearly so barbed but the South African coach admitted concern last week at the loss of players such as Strauss and CJ Stander to the Irish scouting system and yet the IRFU is only now clinging on to the coattails of a fashion which has infiltrated almost every one of the major nations.

Only two of the dozen sides in action last week did not field a foreign-born player and South Africa would have done had Zimbabwean native Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira not withdrawn from the team on health reasons. The other was Argentina, 15 of whose 23-man panel hails from Buenos Aires or its suburbs.

Everyone else was far more cosmopolitan. Italy made most use of regulation 8.1(c) with one-third of the 21 that saw off Tonga hailing from further afield. England and Scotland utilised half a dozen each. Tonga called on five, Wales four, France and Ireland three, Australia two and New Zealand the one.

At one end of the spectrum you had the Kiwi Thomas Waldrom who found out he qualified for England only after the chance discovery of his grandmother’s English roots. At the other are guys like George North who was born in Norfolk but was two when he moved to Anglesea and is now a fluent Welsh speaker and international.

All in all, international rugby is a jumbled, confusing kaleidoscope of loyalties, roots and in some cases sporting mercenaries but it is one that backs up that old cliché about how the world is a smaller place now and if there is one man who encapsulates that better than any other, it is Sergio Parisse.

Parisse was born in La Plata, a suburb of Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires, 29 years ago. He represents the Italian national team, plays his club rugby in Paris and is married to Miss France 2006, who is herself of Hungarian and Spanish descent. Oh, and the godmother to their first child, Ava, is from Reunion, in the Indian Ocean.

That’s a lot of national anthems.

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