This season’s edition of Europe’s Six Nations Championship will see fifty percent of the coaches come from New Zealand, the home of the world champions.
And when the tournament begins in Cardiff on Friday, it’s possible, if unlikely due to form and fitness, that both the Wales fly-half, Gareth Anscombe and the England hooker, Dylan Hartley, could be native Kiwis.
Meanwhile South Africa-born centre Brad Barritt, although injured right now, is in the England squad while the Rainbow Nation has also yielded a trio of France recruits in Rory Kockott, Scott Spedding and Bernard Le Roux.
For some this represents a “cheapening” of international rugby union.
For others it’s the inevitable consequence of increasing numbers of multi-national families allied to the fact that, in the professional era, players have more incentive, especially in financial terms, to venture abroad should staying at home reduce their Test chances.
Under World Rugby rules, players can compete for a country other than the one they were born through a family connection stretching back to a grandparent hailing from their adopted land or via a three-year residency period.
– ‘Complicated question’ –
The whole issue was brought into sharp focus ahead of this Six Nations when Scotland coach Vern Cotter, himself a Kiwi, included Hugh Blake in his squad even though the New Zealand-born back-row forward has yet to play for the capital club.
“My message to people would be to ask them to be open-minded,” Blake, who has Scottish grandparents, told Radio Clyde.
“I’m new. I didn’t select the team. I’m just going to be trying my best over the next few days to try to eventually play for Scotland,” added Blake, who played for the New Zealand Colts at the Junior World Cup.
Cotter, previously in charge of French giants Clermont, accepted the question of ‘overseas’ players in Test sides was a thorny topic.
“I know foreign-born players who have been picked, particularly Tony Marsh (a New Zealand-born centre who was capped 21 times by France from 2001-2004),” Cotter told AFP at this week’s Six Nations launch in London.
“He was immensely proud to have the cockerel over his heart. Having spent a certain amount of time in France, he felt French.
“It’s a complicated question, a political question.
“In the history of French rugby, there have been foreign-born players and they’ve often brought something with them which has been of benefit to the French game.
“French rugby culture remains very strong and once you’ve spent some time there it becomes imprinted upon you, which is certainly what happened to me.”
In the amateur era, England often annoyed their opponents by regarding anyone studying at Oxford or Cambridge Universities, then hotbeds of sport, as qualified to wear the Red Rose.
This resulted in ‘Tuppy’ Owen-Smith captaining England at rugby while playing cricket for his native South Africa, and with Martin Donnelly, one of New Zealand’s greatest batsmen, earning a cap as an England centre.
These days Samoa-born centre Manu Tuilagi, when fit, is a first-choice selection in current England coach Stuart Lancaster’s side.
Meanwhile England’s Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, the former born in New Zealand, the latter in Australia, could also have represented Tonga, the land of their parents, or Wales as that is where the family first lived after arriving in Britain.
Lancaster has set great store by developing an ‘English culture’ within his squad, which he insists is in no way diluted by a player’s origins.
“The likes of Mako and Billy Vunipola have been educated here (in England),” Lancaster told AFP at the Six Nations launch. “Certainly, when I look around my team I see an England team.”