The inclusion of Hugh Blake in the Scotland 6 Nations squad reignited the debate about eligibility rules in international rugby. With the possible exception of Wales, no other country seems to agonise about where their players were born quite as much as Scotland. The All Blacks and Wallabies have regularly selected a succession of Tongans, Samoans and Fijians without anyone batting an eyelid (apart, perhaps for Tonga, Samoa and Fiji). England have also taken advantage of the current eligibility rules without anything approaching the amount of prickliness displayed on social media sites north of the border last week.
Regulation 8 which sets out World Rugby’s eligibility rules is fairly straightforward (if you ignore rules that apply to the 2016 Olympics). A player may represent a national side if:
- They were born in that country;
- One parent or grandparent was born in that country (in the case of adopted children this does not apply to adoptive grandparents);
- They have lived in the country for 36 consecutive months (3 years) immediately prior to playing.
A player is bound to a country if they have played in a senior XV’s match or senior “A” XV’s match or senior 7’s match. The line between an “A” side and U-20 side can be a little blurred which caught Steven Shingler on the hop.
Part of the objections to Hugh Blake’s selection are understandable. He has never turned out for Edinburgh in a competitive match and there are plenty of players performing week in week out for their clubs who ought to be selected ahead of him. Roddy Grant and John Barclay may have justifiable gripes in being overlooked by Vern Cotter and questions were quite rightly asked of Scotland’s head coach at the press conference.
On the evidence so far we have no reason to doubt Big Vern’s decision making and we must assume that he has at least watched video footage of Blake or watched him train and seen something that suggests he has something more to offer than Barclay and Grant. Those who have seen Blake play for Melrose have been impressed without being blown away but then first tier domestic rugby in Scotland is perhaps not the ideal place to assess a player’s international credentials. Rugby is after all a team game and the performance of a single player is only as good as that of those around them.
There is a more sinister element amongst the objections to Blake’s selection which is that he is somehow not Scottish enough to play for the national side. When you look at the substance of those objections more closely they very quickly unravel in a mess of xenophobia and selective memories.
We live in world where national borders are becoming more of an administrative than a cultural barrier. People move from country to country for work, love, family or even just for the hell of it. Cultural heritage and self identity have little to do with where a person is born and much more to do with the way a person is brought up, the places they have lived and people they associate with. We know, for example, that Sean Maitland was brought up on Scotch Pies and woken up in the middle of the night to watch Scotland play. We have no right to question Hugh Blake’s motivation and it’s unlikely he’s uprooted himself and moved half way around the world on a whim.
Some have argued that the selection of players like Blake sends the wrong message to young players in Scotland hoping to break through. The argument goes that players will become discouraged if they see “foreign” players being parachuted into the national side ahead of them. It’s a worn out argument as old as time and a dangerous one at that. Racist undertones aside, the counter argument is that those young players should see it more as a challenge than a hindrance. Sam Warburton said that Warren Gatland once chastised him for saying he wanted to be as good as the best Welsh opensides that had gone before him. Gatland left him in no doubt that he should be aiming to be as good if not better than the best players in the world.
The likes of Dan Parks and Brendan Laney were treated abominably by sections of Scottish fans because somehow they weren’t Scottish enough. Both served Scotland well and were arguably the best options available at the time. However for every Dan Parks or Brendan Laney there is an Ian McGeechan or Tommy Seymour or Tim Visser whose background is conveniently overlooked by the naysayers. If anyone has any doubt about a foreign born player’s passion they should read about McGeechan’s team talk prior to the 1990 Calcutta Cup in Tom English’s “The Grudge”.
The World Rugby regulations might not be to everyone’s liking but they are fair and allow for the fact we live in a globalised society where cultural identity is not as clear cut as it might have been in the distant past. Fans must accept that. There are plenty of Scots born players who have been found wanting at international level and plenty of foreign born players who have been credit to the shirt. Hopefully the SRU Press Officer will have briefed Blake on what to expect when his name was announced. We must also hope that he has the mental strength to rise above those who question his right to represent Scotland.