New Zealand-native Bundee Aki has linked up with the Ireland squad as they prepare for the Autumn Internationals this month, reopening the debate about residency rules in rugby, writes Stephen Barry.
Former Ireland international Neil Francis has voiced his opposition to the rule, which means Aki can play for Ireland after three years living in the country (although this is to be raised to five years in 2021).
This will effectively end Ireland’s policy of targeting the likes of Aki, Munster’s CJ Stander and Ulster’s Jared Payne as ‘project players’ and developing them through the provinces to play for the national team.
Bundee Aki and Conor Murray at Ireland training today. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland
“When you are picking a player to play for Ireland, whatever else about him being good enough, the prime ingredient is whether he is Irish or not,” said Francis on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live.
“At this stage, World Rugby have realised the integrity of the game is at question, and the cornerstone of the game is that we pick the best of us to play the best of England, Wales or whatever else.
“It’s a very strong line. Bundee Aki was born in Auckland to Samoan parents. He wasn’t going to get to play for the All Blacks. He goes 18,000km to a place he’s never heard of before, in Galway.
“He plays for Connacht for three years, contract for services, and because of the residency rule he’s allowed to play for Ireland.
“If you look at what Aki said before becoming eligible, he said, ‘Look, I want to play international rugby somewhere. I could play for England or I could play for New Zealand or I could play for Ireland.’
“That is just ethically and morally wrong in terms of representing your country. Handing out jerseys to people who say that is fundamentally wrong.”
Francis received plenty of opposition online…
Although there was some support too…
Aki’s comments, which Francis referred to, from August 2016, said: “I have taken a lot of things to do with them and I have enjoyed Irish culture and stuff but it is wrong for me to say I am Irish. I can say that I have enjoyed the culture and the environment I am in, in Ireland.
“For me to say I am Irish that is wrong for me to say because I was not born here. That is for them and it is not for me to take away from the guys who were born here and that who want to play for the Irish and who are Irish.
“I am just here at Connacht and my ambition is to play international. I like taking in the culture and stuff like as for being an Irish person it is wrong to say that that I am Irish.
“Technically I could (play for three countries). But at the moment I am trying to finish the year with Connacht and hope all all goes well and make my decision with regard to international in that respect.”
Luke Fitzgerald, who was in competition with Payne for a place in the green jersey, has been a rare voice among recent internationals against project players, saying in October 2016: “I think it’s wrong.
“I know that’s controversial, but – and it’s no reflection on those (foreign-born) guys, they’re doing everything within the rules – I’d like 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 between Irish guys and those guys to really justify it?
“I don’t know if being born in a different part of the world makes you a better player. I think they’re probably better than us, but if they’re not making those 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 – it pisses you off, definitely.”