Fiji coach Inoke Male and former Racing Metro coach Simon Mannix have this week reignited the issue of tier 2 nations’ treatment by the IRB. Male’s issue is eligibility criteria, more specifically residency qualifications of only 3 years and the impact that European clubs scouting networks is having on his stock of players whilst Mannix has accused his former employers of paying Fijian trio of Josh Matavesi (now at Worcester), Johnny Qovu and Sireli Bobo not to take part in the Rugby World Cup.
Meanwhile Freddie Tuilagi has revealed that lower pay during international duty is a common feature of club contracts for players from both major and minor nations . The difference of course is that the RFU pay England players £8,000 per match and £3,000 per win so they still make money from the internationals.
Of course all of these are perfectly fair complaints against the clubs. The bribing of players to turn down an appearance at the Rugby World Cup is probably the worst offence of the three as it is specifically banned under regulation 9 of the IRB rules.
Fiji coach Male’s issue is more complex but better known. English and French clubs scour the world to find players and are going for younger and younger players. That is simply inevitable, if you trust your academy system why wouldn’t you look to cut out the middle man and simply sign up the best players at 18 instead of 23?
The problem comes from the players themselves and the realities of the economic situation they face. Virimi Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci have turned down Fijian approaches and seem intent on playing for France under residency rules. Can you really blame them? France will allow them to achieve more in the game, 6 Nations, World Cup semis and maybe finals, and they’ll be better remunerated too.
We all want international rugby to be the best versus the best, that goes without saying, but is constantly taking more and more from the club game the way to do it?
The IRB should protect rugby at all levels and that includes protecting the domestic game from the constant creep of the international game.
A fairly simple way to stop clubs discouraging players from playing in a World Cup is to end the overlap with the domestic season. Or if that is too hard at least minimise it. Instead the IRB in their infinite wisdom has decided to let the international game dominate yet again and has actually INCREASED the overlap with the domestic seasons.
This just increases the tensions in the exact areas we should be trying to reduce them. The club game in England and France are responsible for employing the vast majority of tier 2 players, either because they have been barred from professional rugby in the Antipodes for choosing to represent a Pacific Island instead of the All Blacks or Wallabies or because they come from a country with no pro infrastructure like USA or Canada.
These clubs are not the bad guys; they are the ones driving the IRB agenda of making tier 2 countries more competitive. And what thanks do they get? Constant scorn being poured upon their heads and their motives constantly questioned.
Similarly with eligibility criteria this is a problem entirely of the IRB’s own making. Allowing a 24 year old to move from South Africa to Ireland and be playing internationally by 27, as Richardt Strauss will be doing this weekend, is ridiculous. The principle of residency criteria is sound. An immigrant arriving in a country at 12 must be able to play internationally for that country at adult level. But the ridiculously lax rules are bringing them into disrepute.
The question of “docked” wages is much harder to unravel. At a fundamental level why should Tigers pay Alex Tuilagi to play for someone else? And have to pay for his replacement at the same time? Again this is a consequence of the IRB placing the World Cup when it does. You cannot expect clubs to shell out yet more dosh for nothing, so blaming the clubs is stupid they have business to run after all.
If the IRB think missed wages for tier 2 players is a problem they should arrange to pay those wages out of the huge revenues of the World Cup (measured in hundreds of millions of pounds). Paying all players at a World Cup a basic £4,000 fee would only cost £2.4m that £4,000 mightn’t be enough to cover an internationals wages for a month but it will make a dent in the difference, the richer unions could top that up for their players if they wanted.
Basically all these issues come down to the IRB disgraceful colonial style management structure where the tier 2 unions that are affected by these issues have a grand total of 2 votes compared to the 18 votes of the ten tier 1 countries. When Scotland has 2 votes and Samoa, Fiji and Tonga combined has 1 it is self evident whose concerns are more likely to be addressed.
Regulation 9 is being systematically abused like a child on Jim’ll Fix It. The rich countries like England, Wales, Ireland and New Zealand cheat it. They train outside these windows by buying off their domestic structures; this gives them a massive advantage over poorer countries who can’t afford to buy off the English and French clubs who employ their players. Then those English and French clubs cheat it too by putting players under severe pressure not to join up with international teams.
The IRB need to act and clamp down on both sides. Fixtures outside the international windows must stop. Training outside the windows must stop. And clubs stopping players playing internationally must stop.