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The eligibility debate: what should the criteria be?

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John Beattie | 10:53 UK time, Friday, 18 May 2012

Is it right that someone who has lived in a country for only three years can then play international rugby for it?

When I was a kid growing up in Malaysia a trip to the UK seemed a lifetime away. Rather, it was a boat trip across the Indian ocean, up through the Suez canal, over the length of the Mediterranean, and then up a short section of the Atlantic Ocean to Southampton and a train trip to Glasgow via London.

It took weeks.

Nowadays a 12-hour plane trip gets you from Kuala Lumpur to London, cooped up in a cabin breathing everyone else's air.

Edinburgh's Dutch wing Tim Visser has been given a call-up to the Scotland squad

Edinburgh's Dutch wing Tim Visser has been given a call-up to the Scotland squad. Pic: SNS.

The point I am making is that people move around the world more easily than they used to. Or rather, the majority do as the greater part of the world's history is tied up with the movement of people looking for pastures, food, territory or water.

And that's probably had a role to play in the eligibility of people to represent a country when it comes to sport.

Saracens' South African number eight Ernst Joubert is the latest to declare himself available to England if they wish to field him as he becomes eligible this June. He follows the recent English additions like Mouritz Botha and Manu Tuilagi.

In Scotland in the past we have fielded David Hilton, who despite believing his grandfather was Scottish actually had no Scottish qualifications, Budge Pountney, who could choose his county as he was from the Channel Islands, and more recently Matt Mustchin, the New Zealander who played for Edinburgh and qualified on residency rules.

And going back to ancient history if you believe that you have to be born in a country to play for it then I never qualified to play for Scotland - Borneo stopped being a suburb of Glasgow a long time ago.

So, a bit of introspection from me: My father reminded me often that I was Scottish. Both my parents were from Glasgow. That was never in doubt. But, as I was born in what is now Malaysia, I think I would have liked to represent Malaysia. It's a beautiful country and there is something about where you are born that tugs at your heart.

My grandfather was South African. Er, I'd never have been good enough for the Springboks your honour.

But what if I'd moved to the USA aged 25 and then lined up against Scotland aged 28? Could I really have lined up against my own country if the USA were to take on Scotland?

Can I be honest? I'm from a different generation so it would have been difficult. I'm just not sure I could have done it. But there's a new breed of professional rugby player who is loyal, with immediate effect, to the club that pays him.

And, let's face it, if you're not good enough for the Springboks or New Zealand you are probably still good enough, in some cases, to play for Scotland.

And that probably applies in national terms as well. The more countries you live in as a rugby player, the less you are tied to the very first country you experienced.

Where I see this all becoming a problem is if countries start offering school scholarships to promising players from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and perhaps even to a lesser extent New Zealand and South Africa before they play for their own countries.

I have no issue with it at professional level as in the case of Edinburgh's recent signing of the Free State's WP Nel, a promising prop who is on the fringe of the Springbok set-up but who will be able to play for Scotland in three years.

But if it ever becomes a full blown national strategy with schools involved then, frankly, count me out.

A nightmare scenario would be national strategies with future teams full of 20-somethings who were brought to Scotland (or England or any other country) in their teens and who mean that there are no places for players with firmer links.

So, good luck to Tim Visser, a plainly decent bloke. I've interviewed him a few times and he says directly that he's not Scottish but he also says how proud he is to play for his adopted country.

I find it hard to put myself in his shoes, I don't believe I could play for a country with which I have no real tie other than having lived in it for three years but, as they say, rules are rules and the world gets smaller and smaller.

I say it's acceptable - unless it becomes a widespread national strategy.

What do you think?

John presents Sport Nation on TV and radio for BBC Scotland.

Follow those programmes on Twitter: @BBCSportNation

You can also follow John: @BBCJohnBeattie


  • Comment number 1.

    The answer is NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It's turning Rugby into a joke. It needs to stop now, and go back to the good old days of parents and grand-parents.

    Could we get your feelings on the subject of Refs? Specially on this : An Irish Referee, refereeing and semi-final in Dublin, Ireland (just in case people don't know, i.e. RaboBank Direct Pro 12 organisation) with and Irish team playing, how can the referee be impartial?

  • Comment number 2.

    Totall agree with Alex. Countries can now effectively buy the team they want (provided they have the money to do so).

    Good call on the referees situation too. I was shocked to see an Irish referee being used to referee a game between an Irish and a Scottish team. With three countries having teams in the RaboBank Pro 12, is it really so difficult to ensure that a refereeing team from the third country is put in charge?

  • Comment number 3.

    Personally, I think Tim Visser is a special case. Playing for his own national team wouldn't have provided him with the level of rugby he aspired to. Therefore he had to look at other options.

    If it came to Scotland hooking in players from Southern Hemisphere to play on grounds of residency, then I fear the main issue would be home-grown Scottish players just not being good enough.

  • Comment number 4.

    Good point(s) all - but I don't think we can have the Parents and Grandparents rule while disregarding the Residency rule. My grandparents are from England, Italy and Australia - yet I was born and raised in Scotland and would never consider anything else (if I happend to play rugby professionally) than playing for Scotland!

    Therefore if you live here (in the Residency instance, over 3 years) and you feel you wish to represent them, then you should be able - Remember, once you choose, you can't play for anyone else so its obviously a huge commitment!

  • Comment number 5.

    Parents and Grandparents fine, being born in the country fine, Residency for three years rubbish!!!! If the boy was schooled in the country and applies for a GB passport and gets it, then maybe.

  • Comment number 6.

    Cant see the specific ancestor rule coming back any time soon when influential teams like England (with the biggest player base in the world) adopt overses players. New Zealand have been doing it for years with the Pacific Islanders.

    Going back to last weekend, I know it was agreed to have a merit system of selection for officiasl but to have 6 Irishmen in the Rabo semi final was stretching the boundaries of impartially to the limit.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think 3 years is way too soon.... I would agree that if a player has lived in Scotland for a decade or more, then I would suggest they would have a certain loyalty to their "home". Mr.Lineen, for example.

    The foreign 3 player rule, that was adopted in footie a few years ago maybe a consideration?

    Ref's, stupid that they cannot get this impartial. How can an Irish ref not be bias to a Irish team? If you think back to the semi final of RWC, Allain Rowland?!?! An french/Irish ref on a Wales v France game, that the Wales disposed of the Irish in the previous round!!! LOL, and in my opinion, a joke performance during the game.

  • Comment number 8.

    It's been happening for a long time: the first rugby international featured a born-and-bred Scot playing for England, and, I think, an Englishman playing for Scotland. In the early 60s Scotland fielded Frans ten Bos, who was born in England, with Dutch forebears: he apparently qualified through residence in Scotland, while at boarding school.

    But it has become a serious problem: it favours the countries who have the most money with which to bribe players to change their 'nationality', through three years of a remunerative contract with an English club. The principal culprit in this practice is, of course, England, through need, wealth, and lack of scruples. Even true-born English international players were 'shamateurs' years before the game became openly professional, and any pretence that it is a game for English 'gentlemen' has long been abandoned.

  • Comment number 9.

    "New Zealand have been doing it for years with the Pacific Islanders".

    How many times do we have to put up with this tutae?

    New Zealand is the largest group of islands in the Polynesian archipelago and there has been migration between Aotearoa and the Pacific Islands for decades - which escalated after the Pacific Islands were granted independence in the 1960s. The All Blacks to which you refer are for the most part the sons of factory workers who had emigrated to New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s seeking a better life ( apparently ). There are a handful who may have arrived on scholarships but New Zealand also provides academic scholarships - should we cut that out too?

    Once and for all can we dismiss this conception that some of you have that vast silver fern liveried trawlers hoover the Pacific Islands of their promising sportsmen and that New Zealand equals Dorset in the 1950s?

  • Comment number 10.


    I'm a fan of your blogs and your commentary but I'm torn by this piece.

    It is relevant; you raise a valid point about national identity and eligibility but we've been here before.

    Instead - and I apologise for my brutal honesty - your article reads as needlessly controversial, pleased with itself and self-gratifyingly introspective. The issues you raise are obvious but accepted. It appears you've articulated this view to make waves and sound humble and 'big'.

    You are humble. You're a nice guy. And you're better than this. We know that.

    I'd have preferred to comment and read about the team selection overall; Andy Robinson's future (post-Summer [various permutations guessed] tests) and the new young guns making the squad, replacing the retiring, valiant old boys.

    Just saying.

    And on that note, I'm predicting heroic - and unexpected wins - over Australia and Fiji but I think Samoa will best us.

    Come on Scotland!

  • Comment number 11.

    I agree with most above that the three year rule is far too short! That's a decent club contract away from any nationality.

    I don't understand how these players move from the Southern Hemisphere and claim their home is "X". I technically could play for any of the home nations (Irish mother and residency for Wales and England), but I would never consider anyone other than Scotland... I don't know how I could ever stand and hear the anthem of another country without feeling like an outsider.

    I think of these guys as modern day mercenaries. Sure choose to move to whichever club you fancy but you can't pick and choose your home depending on whether you'll make selection!

  • Comment number 12.

    Of course I don't agree with it but with our lack of finishers Im not exactly shouting about it.

    Also John I was born in Norway, lived there for a couple of years and then lived the rest of my life in Scotland. Unfortunatley I dont feel any attachment to the country at all...

  • Comment number 13.

    Imports are great for the game, they bring a new dimension to our rugby and can only improve our own players. The danger is that we become like football where overseas players have killed the development of home grown players.

    Imports have done nothing but good for NZ and as long as we ensure that the numbers are in proportion then it will do the same for us.

    re the summer tour pity the Aussie match is first not last.

  • Comment number 14.

    Tim Visser is not the first Dutchman to play for Scotland. Who remembers Frans ten Bos? He was in the British Army, played for London Scottish, that was good enough for the SRU, fearing England would snap him up, played him ASAP. If I remember correctly, he played for London Scottish because he was in the Black Watch!!

  • Comment number 15.


    Re the imports point - please see my email above.

    That we should not choose players that have grown up in New Zealand because of their birth overseas or their parent's choice in terms of lifestyle will seriously knacker any New Zealand sporting team ( the same applies to the All Whites soccer team but as they are not top of their sport this is not a problem apparently ) because of the high proportion of our population who fall into that bracket.

    It will also seriously affect the Samoa team as a large proportion of that team were born in or brought up in New Zealand.

    I get that the Home Unions feel threatened by the fact that guys on the fringes of the All Blacks can get into national teams over here - but they are making themselves available under the rules that apply, they are not forcing the Unions concerned to pick them. Change the rules if you think that will help - just don't drag New Zealand into the "they've been co-opting Polynesians into their teams for years" as a justification as this blithely ignores that we are South Pacific nation not some Baden-Powell / Rudyard Kipling inspired scion of Empire.

    When the UK joined the EEC the writing was on the wall for us and we cast our net wider.

    How's that EEC thing working for you?

  • Comment number 16.

    should be schooled, born or have scottish parents to play for scotland. doesnt matter who this dutch guy is Scotland will still be duff at rugby! perhaps should encourage rugby at state schools rather than the private schools so that the talent pool widens and resortin to getting players from other countries to play for scotland!


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