Towards the end of last season, Johnny McNicholl asked himself a rhetorical question: “Am I Welsh? It’s a tough question to answer. I don’t know.”
Well, the Scarlet Kiwi appears to know now. As soon as the World Cup is consigned to history, he will become one of the last under the old rules to travel halfway around the planet in search of a national identity, perhaps the very last.
The three-year residential rule to make those born in one country eligible to play for another is to be increased to five from next year. A classic example of Nero fiddling while Rome went to blazes, World Rugby’s failure to take more decisive action sooner has turned the international game into “a joke”.
The description comes from the only player to captain his country and run a World Cup as tournament director, the Welshman Paul Thorburn, best remembered for launching the longest penalty goal in the old Five Nations, one that travelled more than 72 yards between the Scottish posts.
Now Thorburn has launched another long-range missile — this one aimed at the game’s governing body, accusing it of effectively encouraging the exodus from the South Pacific.
“World Rugby have demonstrated a total lack of vision for the development of the global game,” he says.
“Serious questions need to be raised about their ability to govern the sport. They have completely undermined the plan to develop second-tier nations like Fiji, Tonga and Samoa by allowing players to qualify for other countries through residence.
“Until recently, you could switch from Fiji to France or Samoa to England or Tonga to Wales in three years — a ridiculously short period — which encouraged the mass exodus from the islands.
“If that continues, the international game will become more of a joke, a circus not unlike the one Kerry Packer launched in cricket all those years ago.
“They’ve increased the residency period to five years, but it’s nowhere near long enough. If they must have a residential qualification, then make it 10 years. International rugby should be all about national pride. Instead, it’s become a laughing stock.
“It was almost embarrassing to watch Italy play Ireland the other week and see an Irishman (Ian McKinley) represent Italy. There’s nothing English about Manu Tuilagi and nothing Welsh about Hadleigh Parkes. What is the justification for that?”
There are, of course, other high-profile examples beyond the Anglo-Samoan and the Welsh Kiwi of players changing allegiance via residence, like Bundee Aki, CJ Stander, and Quinn Roux, all wrapped up in green.
Then there is a veritable squadron of Fijian wings-cum-centres who play for just about everybody except Fiji. At the last count, the number capped by other countries in the last two years was into double figures, with the Wallabies the chief beneficiary.
Australia have capped seven Fijians over the last two seasons, England have three, France two, New Zealand one.
Tonga have lost almost as many, a mixture of forwards and backs. Australia’s pack has been stiffened by the Tongan trio of Lopeti Timani, Silatolu Latu and Taniela Tupou.
Had the residency rule not been too lax, the Vunipola brothers would have been wearing the red of Tonga and perhaps emulating their father Fe’ao as captain of the South Sea kingdom. The same could have applied to Wallaby prop Alan Alaalatoa whose father, Vili, played for Samoa at the 1991 World Cup.
Many of the aforementioned islanders played for their national U20 team before ending up as Wallabies or All Blacks. Many of them, like the Tongan wing Frank Halai, wound up as one-cap wonders with no alternative route back into Test rugby.
Put on a fast track straight into the New Zealand team, Halai flashed across the big stage, never to be seen again. Six years later he and another former All Black, Bristol’s Charles Piutau, the highest-paid player in the English Premiership, have campaigned for clearance to represent Tonga in Japan this autumn — only for World Rugby to turn a deaf ear.
At least Halai has no need to ask about assuming a new national identity, as McNicholl has done. As from November, he will be free to represent a country 12,000 miles from home, while Halai is barred from playing for the place where he was born and bred.
When it comes to European quarter-finals in Dublin, Leinster have lost just once, so long ago that it turned out to be Martin Johnson’s last stand at Lansdowne Road, not to be confused with the one he made on the wrong side of the red carpet at the same place two years before.
On April 2, 2005, with the old place crammed to its 48,500 limit, Leicester Tigers knocked Leinster out 29-13 in a tie so one-sided that Shane Horgan’s late try made no difference. The hammering prompted Johnson’s opposite number, Leo Cullen, to relocate to Tigerville along with another Leinster forward who shared the same if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them philosophy, Shane Jennings.
How times change. As champions of Europe, Leinster have earned the right to a home run all the way to another final, a semi against Racing or Toulouse as reward should they see Ulster off and leave the northerners free to concentrate on making the PRO14 play-offs.
As for the Tigers, they are nowhere to be seen having been counted out of Europe in the New Year. What worries them now is that unless they are very careful, Britain’s best-supported club may be nowhere to be seen in the English Premiership next season.
The Tigers have never been relegated, a fact that puts them one up on the Arsenal who have gone down, if only once and then more than 100 years ago. Newcastle and Worcester having closed the gap to a mere five points, Leicester need to win at least two of their five remaining games.
Whatever their fate, it is at least in the hands of an Irish serial winner and favourite Leicester son, Geordan Murphy. A double Heineken Cup winner when Leicester lorded it over Europe long before he got round to applying the last touch to Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam, Murphy will be prepared to go through the emotional wringer as never before.
The black smoke billowing out of Twickenham will be seen around all five continents as a sign that the World League is about to be scuppered, along with its promise of riches on a scale not far short of €6 billion.
To get their share, estimated at £10m per country per year for 12 years, the Six Nations must agree to promotion and relegation. In rejecting such an idea as potentially ‘catastrophic’, the RFU is merely saying publicly what the majority of the Six have been saying privately.
Why sign up to something when one bad season could make it look like the commercial equivalent of a death warrant? Even if the single play-off is loaded in favour of the Six Nations’ bottom team with home advantage, Italy would not rush to take their chance against the likes of Georgia, ranked three places above them in the pecking order.
And what if Italy start winning? Wales finished rock-bottom in 2003, Scotland in 2004 and again in 2012. Ireland would have been there in 2013 had France not kept them afloat by conceding a mere nine points more over the five matches.
Nigel Melville, the RFU’s acting chief executive, clearly needed nobody to remind him that England finished second-bottom last year. Like a bus that never arrives, it puts Milton Haig, the New Zealander behind Georgia’s rise, on a prolonged wait for the Six to ‘take a risk and open the door’.
Altruism is all very well but Six Nations devotees the world over love the tournament as it is even if Italy are running out of time. That the tournament cannot provide the Six with an equal number of home and away matches is another reason why relegation ought to be a non-starter.
Eddie Jones on the subject of coaching the Lions, as told to the Brisbane Courier Mail: “The last thing I want to do is spend eight weeks in a blazer. That’s an ambassador job. I’m a coach. I’d rather coach the Queensland Sheffield Shield team.”
Whether he meant to diss the Lions job, only he knows. If it was meant as an attempt at a joke, then Jones of all people ought to have known better.
As John McEnroe would have said, had he been within earshot: ‘You cannot be serious.’
Keith Earls stands alone these days as the sole survivor of Munster’s last European Cup-winning squad and Edinburgh will have good reason to watch him like a hawk at lunchtime on Saturday.
When the Scottish capital’s team lost in the PRO14 play-offs last year, Earls scored the decisive try. When they went down in Cork last autumn, the same player helped himself to a hat-trick, and when Ireland were at Murrayfield a few weeks ago, Earls kept on scoring and winning.
Reaching the last four for the third season on the trot will mean preserving a record of not losing an away quarter-final since Llanelli in 2007 when Munster, as defending champions, had Christian Cullen at full back and Tongan centre Lifeimi Mafi at centre alongside the Springbok Trevor Halstead.
The Scarlets won 24-15 under the captaincy of an Irish flanker now employed as national forwards’ coach, Simon Easterby.
The defeat prompted Earls’ promotion into the first team at 19.