Rugby: Former Ireland winger criticises fast-tracking Kiwi players

Luke Fitzgerald of Leinster. Photo / Getty
Luke Fitzgerald of Leinster. Photo / Getty

Former Irish winger Luke Fitzgerald has criticised Joe Schmidt's policy of fast-tracking Kiwi players into Ireland's national team, saying the concept "pisses me off".

Fitzgerald hit out at World Rugby's relaxed eligibility laws as former Chiefs midfielder Bundee Aki signed a new extended three-year contract with Irish club Connacht which makes him eligible to represent Ireland at national level from next year.

The former Leinster and Ireland winger, who retired last month, questioned his country's use of World Rugby's controversial residency rule and said it had "diluted" the international game.

Fitzgerald said he backed World Rugby's decision to review the current regulation that allow players to play international rugby after a period of three years living in their adopted country. He is adamant that the IRFU should focus on home-grown players, instead of looking abroad.

"I think it's wrong," he said. "That's controversial and it's no reflection on those guys. They're doing everything within the rules. I want to see Irish guys in there.

"Are we not good enough to fill the spots? I don't know if there's a big enough gap to justify it? Garry (Ringrose) looks awesome, Robbie's (Henshaw) brilliant, Stuart Olding, Luke Marshall.

"I don't know if being born in a different part of the world makes you a better player. If they're not making their international teams, why would we be taking them? Is that an admission we're not as good as them? I'm sure it is. Would it affect me if there was a guy from another place getting picked ahead of me? I've been in that spot and it does piss you off.

"You've come all the way up through the systems and then all of a sudden some guy comes in and is perceived to be better because he's from a different place and it's, 'Let's get this guy in'.

"It's really disappointing. It really dilutes it. What's the point? It's like Barbarians versus Barbarians, why do that? I don't understand that."

Irish media have reported that national coach Schmidt had spoken with Aki ahead of his Connacht contract extension. The former Blues assistant coach recently re-signed with Ireland through to the 2019 World Cup.

World Rugby deputy chief Gus Pichot has the residency issue in his sights ahead of several important meetings of global rugby officials over the next few weeks in the northern hemisphere. The former Pumas Test halfback believes the three-year qualification period should be extended to five as a means of protecting the integrity of the sport and putting an end to the practice of "project players".

"Five years is what I want but I am finding that there is a lot of resistance to change," said Pichot. "We probably won't get that sorted at our November meeting. We are linking it will with player release for Tier Two countries so it is quite complex.

"In principle, bringing in players is wrong. Take a Fijian boy and put him in an Argentinian shirt three years later, for example, that is not right. It is allowed but it is against the ethics, a sort of bending of the rules, like saying to a player on the field that you can do what you like at whatever cost to win. That doesn't make it right even if it is correct by the rules. "

Pichot, himself the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, has no objection to the likes of second or third generation Pacific Islanders playing for New Zealand or whomever, or the Vunipola brothers, reared in the UK, turning out for England.

"That is immigration, that is normal," said Pichot.

And what of Fiji's Olympic gold medal-winning Sevens coach, Ben Ryan, remarking about the 'Wild West' market in the Pacific Islands where clubs and agents sign up schoolboy talent?

"And then perhaps discard them down the line," said Pichot. "Everyone is out there. A little money is a lot of money in Fijian terms. Offers are tempting but what happens when a whole family is uprooted and it doesn't work out? Dropped like a stone, it is so wrong. We have to be better than this."

- NZ Herald

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