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League: A question of when residency begins

James Tamou.
Photo / Getty Images
James Tamou. Photo / Getty Images

Rugby League International Federation chairman Scott Carter believes the sport's eligibility criteria is largely sound, despite the furore caused by James Tamou's perceived defection from New Zealand to play for Australia.

Carter, who doubles as the New Zealand Rugby League chairman, says players moving between countries is reflective of the modern world and the RLIF has to recognise that.

However, Carter says two elements require further investigation. The first is when residency is deemed to have started; players must be in a country nine months of every year for three years. The second is whether eligibility rules should apply to junior internationals rather than just tests.

"The start of someone's residency can be subjective," Carter says. "As a former policeman, I don't like ambiguity. The process needs to be more clinical. Does it start from the day someone enters a country or when you get your visa granted?

"A classic case was [New Zealand-born England five-eighth] Rangi Chase last year. On the face of it, he seemed to qualify but when he entered England some evidence suggested he had only been there two years and 11 months. Even the English authorities couldn't tell when he officially started. It should be a case of just getting out the calendar and doing the maths. That's where there are genuine criticisms.

"We also need to decide whether eligibility rules apply to junior internationals. At the moment they don't. I believe there's a natural expectation they should. Look at the Tamou case. He'd played for New Zealand Maori and the Junior Kiwis.

"However, I don't believe we should complicate that rule by including age group teams or schoolboy sides. There are plenty of cases where people go overseas to work and their kids go to local schools. If they're talented they play representative sport for their temporary country.

"We're looking to set up a panel to judge what eligibility should apply."

Eligibility scandals like Nathan Fien's 2006 Grannygate - when his great-grandmother rather than grandmother was the link to New Zealand - have made the rules ripe for ridicule. Yet Carter insists they are simple in principle. Players either have to be a citizen of a country, have parents or grandparents from a country or have qualified for a country via three years' residency.

"I think you could compare those rules to most sports," Carter says. "Eligibility still comes down to a player's right to choose. League has two main competitions [in Australia and Britain] that naturally draw talent from a lot of countries. The reality is no one will commute from Tonga to Leeds or Christchurch to Brisbane so it's natural players will clock up a lot of time in those two countries and [the Kangaroos and Lions] will have access to a strong talent pool.

"I can understand [NZRL high performance manager] Tony Kemp is disappointed after the work done with Tamou. He was part of the Four Nations train-on squad last year. People get frustrated when someone appears to have made their choice and changes their mind. But in the modern world people's circumstances change. If someone genuinely wants to play for Australia, and qualifies, there's no point standing in their way.

"For years Australia and New Zealand have sucked people out of the islands to work in factories, go to university and become professionals. Those people also play sport and the natural path is for them to move countries. I don't think it's contentious. Society has changed, there has always been a flow between countries but these days it is more common, especially with professional athletes. It comes down to an individual's right to choose."

Carter says the prospect of players moving between countries at international level is carefully scrutinised.

"To stop any farcical movement - like the Fien saga - players can effectively only play for one country per world cup cycle. Critics need to realise many players have numerous options. I've known players who are eligible for four nations. For example, a player can have Samoan grandparents who move to New Zealand. The parents then move to Australia and have children. Those children might go and play in England for three years.

Another overriding factor for players like Tamou is the lucrative nature of playing in an Australian uniform, be it a New South Wales, Queensland or Kangaroos jumper.

Players selected for State of Origin are understood to pick up in excess of $50,000 for a series; an international test is likely to earn a player less than $10,000.

"You can't blame athletes being brutally commercial," Carter says. "People will say: how can you value anything more than tradition, pride and amateurism? The reality is that, in the modern world, loyalty is not everything."

- Herald on Sunday

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