Wales have a long history of capping New Zealanders and Johnny McNicholl looks likely to become the latest. Willis Halaholo, when he’s fit again, could soon follow. Harri Morgan suggests this is just the way of a changing world, but wonders whether unease may provoke a re-think.
Willis Halaholo has been ruled out of making his debut for Wales this weekend, because of a knee injury that requires surgery, but that will not prevent the divisive issue of international eligibility going away for long.
When the New Zealand-born centre regains his fitness, it may not be long before will all be going beserk if he gives it the old ‘watcha talkin bout?’ to a would-be defender, before releasing a back of the hand off-load to Hadleigh Parkes.
His fellow Kiwi might then draw the final defender before a slipping a perfectly-timed pass to send a moustachioed Johnny McNicholl over in the corner to win it for Wales – for their country.
For Wayne Pivac, the original inclusion of Blues’ centre Halaholo and Scarlets’ back three utility vehicle McNicholl ahead of this weekend’s ‘Diolch Warren’ fixture against the Barbarians, was likely a no-brainer.
His job is to win international rugby matches – not an easy gig, that one. Picking the best eligible players is a good place to start – even if three of them in the back line happen to be born in New Zealand.
And yet, and yet – there are mutterings of discontent.
The presence of a player of Kiwi origin going to work in the red of Wales, nothing new about that.
I remember reading the player profiles in a programme as a young fella and trying to work out how Hemi Taylor, a Maori from New Zealand, was playing for Wales. There have been plenty since, all welcomed – or so I recall.
Perhaps there is a growing feeling that the continued globalisation of the professional game will see selection from the residents bar, rather than the pool of home grown talent, shift from exception to norm. If it hasn’t already.
The past decade has seen an upturn in the number of project players, as well as an increasing realisation amongst players that a three-year residency might represent their best opportunity of conquering their pursuit of an international jumper – not to mention maximising earning potential.
World Rugby’s reaction to this trend was to raise the eligibility bar by two notches to five years.
Whether this will reverse the trend, only time will tell. It may be that the pull of international rugby is such that players will just make a decision earlier in their career. They will weigh up their chances of cracking it with their first choice nation, or whether investing five years overseas will yield a more prosperous end game.
Leinster wing James Lowe will be one of the first to be capped under the five-year rule, when he becomes eligible for Ireland next year.
Lowe has spoken openly that he believes he would have collected a handful of All Blacks caps, but the contract Leinster put in front of him – coupled with a prospect of a green jersey down the track – rendered the return on investment far greater abroad than it was in his homeland.
As fans, should it matter to us if the players who don that much-coveted international jersey have a deep affinity with the nation?
If they are superior on the talent front to their competitors and are motivated to win, does it matter if that desire is derived from childhood dreams and a lifetime of exposure to national folklore, or if it is the result of an inner-determination to reign victorious regardless of the cause, or colour of the shirt?
See Parkes’ tackle on Jacob Stockdale in last season’s Grand Slam game for a manifestation of the latter.
There would be plenty for whom the red jersey means more, but very few who could push to such extremes in its name.
The pragmatist would lean on the notion that if everyone else is doing it then Wales risk falling behind if they opt to step away from adopting the premier talent that graces the shores of this country as their own.
The traditionalist would be quick to highlight the irony of deploying a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ policy in this instance.
Time will tell if there is a critical mass of imported talent, which if exceeded would see the Welsh public will lose their connection with the national side.
Alternatively, in what is a results-based business, the masses may favour a win at all costs approach.
The impact to the Union’s bottom line may be the ultimate determinant of how they shape future selection policy.
Oh, and just to stoke the fire, a reminder to all that after 11 years’ service to domestic rugby with the Ospreys, Rhys Webb is still not available for Wales.