Rugby Imports

During the Asian 5 Nations the Korean coach said that he would like to play Japan without their foreign players. This got me thinking about the the stereo types that we have in rugby and I thought I’d have a look at the facts. Here I’m going to look at where all the players at the Rugby World Cup were born.

Clearly each case is individual and I’m not going to be able to look into all 620 players individual situations. This isn’t a judgement call or witch hunt into the squads just a look at the cold hard facts.

Let us be clear, players have been playing for their adopted countries for ever. Here are some of the stereotypes that have built up over time:

  • Japan import lots of Kiwis into their squad
  • The All Blacks raid the pacific islands carrying off their best players
  • Scotland is full of kilted Kiwi project players
  • Italy are propped up by Argentinians

If you are not born in a country there are two ways that you can become eligible to play for that country. First there is the family/grandmother connection, this one I’m comfortable with and don’t have a problem. Then there is residency which is currently set at 3 years, this one again I’m comfortable with when a player/family has built a life somewhere new.

I was born in England and have lived in Africa, the middle east, south east Asia and now in New Zealand. My wife is a Kiwi and my daughters were born in Hong Kong and Singapore. So I’m fully aware that nationality is difficult to define in a modern mobile world. However I’m not comfortable with the Scottish style of project players who are employed with a target of being eligible for the national team. This though is not a witch hunt but to look at the numbers and see how they matchup with the stereotypes.

Let’s have a look at the numbers:

 Born: Home Abroad
Argentina 31 0
Georgia 31 0
Uruguay 30 1
South Africa 30 1
Namibia 29 2
England 28 3
Fiji 28 3
Romania 27 4
New Zealand 26 5
Ireland 26 5
Canada 26 5
Australia 22 9
Italy 22 9
USA 21 10
France 21 10
Wales 20 11
Japan 20 11
Scotland 20 11
Tonga 19 12
Samoa 18 13
Total 495 125
Average 24.75 6.25

Twenty percent or one in 5 of the players heading to the Rugby World Cup are born in a different country to the one they will represent. I don’t know what I was expecting but that is a significant number which in retrospect it always had to be for this to be a story in the first place. What should be more of a surprise are the teams with none or only 1 or 2 players from overseas.

So let’s have a look at the stereo types:

  • Japan import lots of Kiwis into their squad – Japan are at the upper end with nearly twice as many the average. Looking at those players 7 are from New Zealand, 2 from Tonga and one each from Australia and South Africa. 6 of those players though are Japanese citizens which means that they have legally had to give up their other citizenships and must take Japanese language tests not just rugby communication.
  • The All Blacks raid the pacific islands carrying off their best players – New Zealand are just below average and of those 2 are from Australia with 3 from the islands. 1 from Samoa, Tonga and Fiji is hardly raiding the islands especially when we later look at where most of the abroad players come from.
  • Scotland is full of kilted Kiwi project player – Scotland are at the upper end however 3 are from England. There are clearly project players and it’s the openness that people find so disturbing.
  • Italy are propped up by Argentinians – Italy are over average and 4 of their players are from Argentina including 2 with over 100 caps each. It’s the high-profile and reliance of their Argentine players that has led to this stereo type.

Looking at some of the other numbers:

  • Argentina, Georgia, Uruguay and Namibia have very few imports and this I would expect is also down to the strength of their economies to attract migrants generally. Also the lack of a professional league for players to play in will stop players qualifying due to residency.
  • Fiji is a surprise when you see that Samoa and Tonga have the largest number of imports. When you realise that Auckland has the largest Polynesian population of any city in the world you can see how they have so many second/third generation Kiwis to pick from.
  • Wales have a surprisingly large number of imports but they are mainly from England and often have played all their professional rugby in Wales.
  • When you consider that France has one of the largest populations of players and professional players the number of imports seems unnecessarily high.

The other way to look at this is from the supply side rather than the buy side. So here is the table listing where the 125 imported players come from.

New Zealand 39 31.2%
England 15 12.0%
Australia 15 12.0%
South Africa 15 12.0%
Fiji 6 4.8%
Tonga 6 4.8%
Argentina 5 4.0%
Zimbabwe 4 3.2%
Samoa 3 2.4%
Spain 2 1.6%
Ireland 2 1.6%
Saudi Arabia 1 0.8%
Ivory Coast 1 0.8%
Nigeria 1 0.8%
Netherlands 1 0.8%
Belgium 1 0.8%
Papua New Guinea 1 0.8%
USA 1 0.8%
Scotland 1 0.8%
Israel 1 0.8%
Algeria 1 0.8%
Zaire 1 0.8%
Burkina Faso 1 0.8%
Georgia 1 0.8%

New Zealand are by far the biggest exporter of talent with over 30% of the imported players come from there. 21 of the 39 play for Samoa and Tonga so not only do they have only a player from each in their squad but they also “provide” a large portion of those squads. It suggests the european view of the All Blacks being full of islanders is not true.

England is in the next group at 12% with most players in the Welsh and Scottish squads. This is clearly due to no boundaries and the general economic migration of much of UK to London.

Australia and South Africa are also at 12% but unlike the other two mentioned so far, the players are spread among many squads. Both countries people are known for travelling add to that the competition at home and economic benefits of travelling we shouldn’t be surprised by this.

The surprise is the relative lack of pacific islanders, they create a lot of headlines but it would seem there are relatively few imports.

The other surprises are the interesting countries with only 1 player exported including Burkina Faso which I hadn’t heard of before.

I hope you have found it interesting, some of the stereo types are true but others aren’t as simple as they first appear. Also there are some teams that have far more imports that you would expect.

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12 thoughts on “Rugby Imports

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  1. Good article.
    I think the French situation is interesting given their huge player base and their increasing reliance on overseas players in both their domestic leagues plus the national team.

    Saying that there are probably two different types of overseas player and we should treat each of them differently.

    In France’s case there is the likes of Dusautoir who moved to France at a young age and has learnt how to play the game in France and Spedding or Kockott who have moved to France later in life to play rugby and qualify on residency grounds.

    It’s this second group of players who I feel less comfortable with playing for their adopted nations so I would lengthen the residency requirements.

    I would also do away with the grandparent rule so the likes of Hardie can’t appear in a country a few weeks before a game for the first ever time and get capped. I’d stick to parents only.

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    1. Thank you, I think there is a consensus that the residency period should be expended to something like 5 years to be bigger than a RWC cycle.
      You need to be careful with the grandparent one, look at how many players born in NZ play for Samoa and Tonga. They are very proudly of that heritage but due to economic migration have been born and brought up in NZ.
      When changing rules it’s the unintended consequences that bite you 🙂

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  2. I agree with the comment about increasing residency requirement to 5 years. I’ve always thought of it in terms of professional contract renewals – a typical contract being 2 or 3 years, but the 4 year RWC cycle is also good.

    Personally, I would remove grandparents. How long after a family has moved can you claim ‘heritage’? Once you emigrate, then you are effectively leaving the past behind you, and I don’t see that your children’s children can lay much claim to a country that you left, possibly as a small child.

    Keeping parents in allows for temporary relocation – such as Jamie Heaslip, who was born in Israel while his father (an Irish army officer) was serving with the UN, but I don’t see any need to go further back than this. I suspect that the Saudi Arabian import has a similar background, but I would guess that the Algerian plays for France.

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    1. You’re right the player born in Algeria it is Sofiane Guitoune. Saudi Arabia is Stephen Moore and I don’t know why his Irish parents were there, they emigrated to Oz when he was 5.
      You need to be careful about removing the grandparent one as I think it could or will have a big impact on Samoa and Tonga who have thriving communities in New Zealand. Auckland is the largest Polynesian city and so there could be consequences that you wouldn’t expect.

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      1. I would look at making the requirement 2 grandparents rather than 1, or requiring some residency (less than the 5 years for no ancestry where there is only 1 grandparent), and maybe waiving the residency requirement for countries without a professional league.

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        1. I think having different requirements for different countries is always going to be difficult and I would not want to put something in place that would dissuade a country from setting up a professional league.

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  3. Interesting article.

    I’m not sure if the figures are available, but I’d be like to see how many foreign players a team has compare with how many professional players the country has. For example, England has a lot more professional players then Scotland, but fewer foreign players.

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