Schmidt is playing by the rules of a small world

Schmidt is playing by the rules of a small world
Head coach Joe Schmidt and Jonathan Sexton. Photo Credit: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned through Trump and Brexit and any number of other modern misadventures then it must be the depressing truth that facts and logic come a distant second to raw emotion and an indignant sense of righteousness.

Add questions of nationality and identity to the mix and, well...

Joe Schmidt, inevitably, found himself defending his decision to omit Devin Toner from Ireland’s World Cup squad this week, though the possible effect that may have on a lineout demolished only two weekends earlier in Twickenham seemed to be of less concern to many than the identity of the man who had edged him out.

Jean Kleyn only became eligible to play for Ireland a few days before the first of the World Cup warm-up games, against Italy late last month.

He did so under a rule that deemed him good to go after three years as a resident on this island. He will be among the last to qualify in that time-frame, with the stipulation since upped to five by World Rugby.

Schmidt’s response was long and strong, impassioned in places and dispassionate in others.

He asked at what point could these players move here and contribute to a community before that community fully accepts them.

At another, he made the observation that the number of ‘imports’ was painfully low anyway.

To the second point first and, well, he’s right.

Only four players — Isaac Boss, Nathan White, Richardt Strauss and Jared Payne — have featured for Ireland at previous World Cups under the residency rules.

Another three will join them in Japan with Kleyn, Bundee Aki and CJ Stander all included in a 31-man squad charged with navigating their way through Pool A and beyond.

The overall numbers at the last World Cup, in 2015, make for interesting reading too.

The Americas Rugby News website found that 131 foreign-born players were on duty at the tournament in England.

That’s just over 21% of the total. Of those, 63 made it on residency grounds. That’s ten per cent, basically. Most notable of all 46 would have still qualified had the five-year rule been enforced at the time.

All of which left 2.7% of the 620 players named in the squads who would have missed out had the five-year rule been imposed. A grand total of 17.

What that tells us is that the residency issue, while used more extensively in some countries than others, is far from widespread.

The extra two years going forward will dilute it further but it won’t simplify the question of eligibility.

And nor should it.

Twenty countries played at the 2015 World Cup but 33 nations were represented. Eight of those were in Africa alone. Ireland’s main competitors in Pool A this time include Japan, who boast 14 players born elsewhere.

Scotland bring 13 with birth certs stamped either south of Hadrian’s Wall or the equator.

Close to half of Samoa’s squad opened their eyes for the first time in either New Zealand or Australia.

Hiding within all these cold stats are tales that tell us of a world where borders are not the fixed boundaries they once were. Take Samoa’s prop Paul

Alo-Emile for starters. Born in Auckland, grew up in Brisbane, plays his club rugby in France but represents the Pacific island of his forebearers.

Michael Leitch was born and reared in the Christchurch suburb of Burwood but went to school in Tokyo from the age of 15, speaks Japanese better than he does English and is a citizen since 2013.

Tommy Seymour spent his first nine years in the USA, moved to Belfast and will wear the Scottish thistle on his chest.

That’s how the world works now. There can hardly be a town or village left in Ireland these days that doesn’t reverberate to an accent that was honed in far distant lands - and what a rich and fascinating tapestry it makes for an island that was for so long at such a remove from these influences.

We’ve seen this reflected in sports with Irish athletes and teams which boast familial links to Africa and Eastern Europe and elsewhere but many people seem able and more than willing to embrace those sportspeople and that trend while harbouring feelings of discomfort over a residency rule used to boost a national selection.

“I’ve played with three guys that weren’t born here”, said Jonathan Sexton in 2016.

They’ve given as much to the Irish jersey as I have or whoever you want to pick.

“If the right guys are here for three years and they want to play for Ireland and they want to give as much to the guys as I just mentioned, and it’s going to raise the standard of rugby, well, they are the rules at the moment.”

Rules they may be but some will never like them.


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