OPINION: If World Rugby is fair dinkum about improving test rugby then something has to be done to avoid the irony of the All Blacks calling up a Tongan-born player immediately after thrashing Tonga by 102 points.
No-one is questioning Samisoni Taukei’aho’s eligibility – he’s lived in Hamilton since 2014 – nor his desire to be an All Black.
Many Pacific Island players long domiciled here would follow the same track – there’s more chance of winning a World Cup with the All Blacks, and the pay’s much better.
But, every time a Pasifika player plumps for the All Blacks, Wallabies, England or France it only exacerbates the ever-widening gulf between tier one and developing rugby nations.
* Sevu Reece reveals how close he came to playing for Fiji before All Blacks called
* All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizell cleared to play but Dalton Papalii is ‘struggling’
* Chiefs hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho called into All Blacks squad as injury cover
* Cautious support for plan to allow ex-All Blacks to play for Pacific nations
World Rugby have to consider creative solutions to the vexed eligibility issue.
How about an immediate moratorium allowing dual heritage players to represent a tier-two nation after playing for a top tier team?
That would allow, among others, ex-All Blacks Charles Piutau (Tonga), Lima Sopoaga and Steven Luatua (Samoa) and ex-England backrower Nathan Hughes (Fiji) to turn out for their heritage nations.
It wouldn’t, by itself, turn a 100-point blowout into an upset victory, but it would make Tonga, Samoa and Fiji more competitive.
Such an overdue change would put an end to the crazy situation where Aucklander Ben Atiga’s sole test appearance for the All Blacks – six minutes in a 91-7 romp over Tonga at the 2013 Rugby World Cup – prevented him playing later for a Pasifika nation.
If World Rugby wants to give second tier sides a hand up, it must insist on a fairer profit-sharing system for test matches at tier-one venues.
That would allow emerging nations to make higher match payments, which might induce more players to return from their overseas-based clubs.
It’s simply unfair that Tonga had to field 15 uncapped players against the All Blacks – and reprehensible that the Tongans had to pay their own quarantine costs.
Maybe World Rugby could look to other sports for solutions to the eligibility impasse.
Fifa, world football’s governing body, zealously guards the integrity of the international game, but has more flexibility than its rugby counterpart.
Under Fifa rules, a player who has represented one country at youth international level can represent another provided they apply for a change of association before the age of 21.
That meant former Wellington Phoenix forward Tyler Boyd (born in New Zealand but raised in California by a Kiwi dad and American mum) was able to represent the United States senior team after playing for New Zealand age group sides.
Boyd had played five matches for the All Whites, but they were deemed friendlies outside Fifa’s official jurisdiction.
The ‘friendlies’ factor could have particular relevance for rugby.
Most rugby internationals – outside the World Cup, Six Nations and Rugby Championships – are effectively friendlies in name, if not nature.
Why not allow dual heritage players to commit to one nation for official designated tournaments yet play for another in ‘friendly’ test windows.
What harm would there be in Sevu Reece on Saturday against the All Blacks in a Fijian backline boasting Wallabies Marika Koroibete, Semi Radradra and Samu Kerevi? Forsyth Barr Stadium would need a new roof.
Suddenly, you’d have something more resembling a contest, which could lead to bigger crowds and television audiences, resulting in a fairer payout for second-tier nations.
Relaxing the rules around dual representation could also have the same potential impact as the defection of Kiwis and Kangaroos players – including stars Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita – to the Mate Ma’a Tonga team at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
Taumalolo said at the time: “I see with the new international rule change an opportunity to represent both Tonga and New Zealand throughout my career, I have and will always be proud to wear the Kiwis Jersey. I just feel the World Cup provides developing nations like Tonga an opportunity to play on the big stage and I would like to help them with their campaign.”
With Taumalolo still on board, Tonga have since beaten the Kiwis, Great Britain and Australia and are title contenders at the upcoming World Cup.
It’s slightly trickier in rugby union where New Zealand and Australian players are contracted to their national unions, unlike rugby league, where clubs primarily pay the players.
But what’s stopping World Rugby from borrowing the International Rugby League (IRL) regulation restricting players to representing one nation in a calendar year?
That would allow Reece and Koroibete to tour Europe with Fiji outside World Cup windows, yet still represent the All Blacks or the Wallabies at the big dance.
Would that undermine the integrity of test rugby any more than the current situation allowing players without heritage links to don another nation’s jumper after five years’ residence?
The IRL has a caveat restricting players to representing just one tier-one nation throughout their careers. World Rugby could do the same.
Bill Beaumont and his board could play even harder ball by adopting the Australian rugby league edict requiring State of Origin players to have lived in New South Wales or Queensland before the age of 13.
That would deter schools and clubs in New Zealand, Australia, France and England dangling the ‘national jumper’ carrot to impressionable recruitment targets.
Such a rule would be tough luck for some without heritage links to top-tier nations – Taukei’aho first came to New Zealand as captain of Tonga’s under-15 team while All Blacks wings Reece, Waisake Naholo and Sitiveni Sivivatu all came from Fiji beyond 13.
But they could still play test rugby for their nations of origin and the door could still be open to players representing another nation if they have heritage through a parent or grandparent.