Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Bundee jump is causing ire

Aki the latest in a long line of southern hemisphere players to have been lured north to play test rugby writes Gregor Paul.

Bundee Aki. Photo / Getty Images
Bundee Aki. Photo / Getty Images

When he was coach of Wales, Graham Henry caused outrage across the valleys when he proposed importing South African schoolboys as a genuine development strategy for the national team.

His theory was simple: plenty of South African families wanted out of their homeland, so why not offer scholarships at Welsh schools to the best young players? It would strengthen the player pool and give Wales access to better athletes.

Because, howled an indignant rugby public, the Welsh team would end up not particularly Welsh. South Africans could become eligible through the residency qualification, but they would never be Welsh.

The vitriol in Wales was easy to understand and yet 15 years on and the vision Henry proposed has been adopted, if amended, across Europe. Ireland have become serious importers of targeted foreign talent.

They identify players whose eligibility has not been captured, ask them to sign away their rights to play for any other nation and then lock them in with lucrative, three-year deals.

Wales, Scotland, England, France and Italy all have similar strategies in place, too. And not a peep of discontent, despite this being eerily close to Henry's vision.

The joke of all this, of course, is that it has predominantly been the Northern Hemisphere unions who have blocked any amendments to the eligibility rules, arguing that the game's credibility would be tarnished if players could serve a stand down after representing a TierOne nation and then appear for a Tier Two nation.

The Celts in particular don't see their hypocrisy or fully appreciate that their real motives are all too easy to read: they won't vote for that change because it would strengthen the Pacific Islands to such an extent that Samoa, Fiji and Tonga could push well into the top 10 and stay there.

Yet Ireland think nothing inappropriate in targeting Bundee Aki, the Chiefs midfielder who was born and raised in South Auckland and is also qualified to play for Samoa.

If he ever plays test football, though, it will be in the green of Ireland. The absurdity of this could well be lost, as alongside him in the Irish team could be Jared Payne and Nathan White, former Super Rugby men here who were lured on similar deals. Both become eligible for Ireland this year - both are fancied to win caps. Former New Zealand under-20 representative Rodney Ah You is another on the same deal at Connacht.

An Irish team that was raised oblivious to the story behind the Fields of Athenry is not an Irish team. Test jerseys shouldn't be made available like that and as former Ireland captain Keith Wood said in 2012 when another New Zealander, Michael Bent, was fast tracked into the Irish team without even having played a game in the Emerald Isle: "It can't be that easy to play for Ireland as to get on a flight and fly into the country. It can't be. And I find that wrong."

Ireland are not alone in this. Scotland have an active, offshore recruitment strategy; French club Clermont have a player academy in Fiji which has produced talent for the national team; England have more Pacific Island-born players than the All Blacks; a handful of Australia's regular selections are New Zealanders and former Crusader and Hurricane Michael Paterson could play for Wales this year.

All Black coach Steve Hansen is fed up with the talent poachers. He, like many others, can't see the long-term value in importing foreign players and promoting them ahead of domestic talent. That, however, is beyond his control and his chagrin lies more with the New Zealand players who go down this route.

"The disappointing thing is that people have a dream to play for the All Blacks, but rather than stick at it, and have a real go at achieving that, they take the easier option when it is presented," says Hansen.

The scale of the poaching is at levels where it can't be dismissed as non-threatening. Volumes tend to rise in the year or so before a World Cup, with Payne, Paterson and former Highlander Daniel Bowden leaving on the eve of the last tournament.

All three were maybe one or two injuries away from an All Black call up and while that may not seem enticing odds, the example of Stephen Donald ending up as World Cup hero is illustrative of how quickly things can change.

"But if players aren't here, they can't take up that opportunity should it arise," says Hansen.

It's not just that situations can change at World Cups. Historically there has been a major clean out of personnel after them. A pathway that is blocked pre-World Cup, can often clear quickly after it, and the fourth choice in some positions can suddenly be the first.

That's the nub of Hansen's concern - that the severity of the exodus may not be fully appreciated until a few current All Blacks move on after 2015 and the second tier just isn't there to step up.

- Herald on Sunday

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