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Darren Cave is proud to see Ulster pal Jared Payne pull on an Ireland shirt

By David Kelly

There are feathers being ruffled as rugby prepares to tackle the issue of international eligibility and whether the three years required to switch allegiance is fit for purpose.

World Rugby is bracing itself for a change in residency rules for international qualification which could alter the way the Irish game goes about the business of recruiting overseas players.

There are a myriad of factors and circumstances that have forced the governing body's hand and the wider scrutiny on the World Cup later this year will cast a searing spotlight on many of them, such as the New Zealanders who will be playing for other nations (as 71 did in the 2011 tournament and as Ireland's Jared Payne will this year).

It will be easier to identify the countries where all the players represent the country of their birth rather than those that don't.

Of course, nobody would argue that national eligibility in an already limited global participation sport be restricted to birth alone; in that case, San Diego-born Ronan O'Gara would have had to take up Eddie O'Sullivan's 1999 World Cup offer to play for the USA.

The course of Irish rugby history could have been so very different; so too if Jamie Heaslip had been forced to align with Israel or Malcolm O'Kelly with England.

However, it is the third strand of the eligibility law that has the sport in a tickle, namely that a previously uncapped player can play for any country once "he has completed 36 consecutive months of residence immediately preceding the time of playing".

Many would like to see this increased to, say, five years. O'Gara is on record as declaring it should be 10 years.

It is a delicate debate and it risks being personalised, as Payne has already discovered to his cost.

Darren Cave is one such player who might have felt discommoded by the arrival of fellow Ulster star Payne, in particular, and his opinion demands a hearing.

"As a player you know the rules and play by them," he says. "I do know that if somebody comes over to a country, buys into the ethos and chooses to play for another country, the country should be honoured to have that player.

"Jared is probably one of the best backs I've ever played with. To think he doesn't consider himself good enough to play for New Zealand makes me wonder how good the New Zealand players are," he adds. "He's decided he wanted to play for Ireland and as an Irishman I take that as a compliment.

"It raises the standard, he raises the standard of my play, we make each other better players. It's not like spinning a globe and pointing a finger. You still have to come over for three years."

The consistent argument has been if a "project player" from another country is better than a native player, so be it.

Complicating the global debate is player movement from the cash-poor south to north which floods leagues with non-nationals which forces countries to "buy" in players. It is a vicious, and not always virtuous, circle.

The rules may be broken but players should not be blamed for not fixing them; that is World Rugby's job and it will take more than eligibility rule changes to alter the complex financial imbalances in the game.

"It's not my position to say whether it should be longer," Cave pleads.

"My job is to play with the players I play with."

Belfast Telegraph


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