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Wrestling with boundaries of belonging in international rugby

Duhan Van Der Merwe - pic © Peter Watt/N50 Sports
Duhan Van Der Merwe - pic © Peter Watt/N50 Sports

Scotland

2024 Guinness Six NationsSat 24th Feb 2024Murrayfield, EdinburghKick-off: 4:45 pm (UK)30-21
England

England

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)| TV: BBC Sport


Following Scotland’s 30-21 win over England last weekend, with a hat-trick from Duhan van
der Merwe helping Scotland keep the Calcutta Cup, the discussion of the eligibility rules in
international rugby has been rife once again.

Born and raised in the Western Cape, Van der Merwe played for South Africa at under-20
level before moving to Europe to join Montpellier and then on to Edinburgh in 2017. After
three years, under World Rugby’s old rules, he qualified to play for Scotland making his
debut in 2020 against Georgia.

Van der Merwe is just one of the 23 Scottish players born outside of Scotland playing for the
nation who have sparked uproar over World Rugby’s criteria for eligibility and more broadly,
over the concept of nationality.

The discussion is important and results in changes. In response to the growing trend of
players representing nations without ancestral connections, the residency period for
international team eligibility was extended from three years to a more rigorous five years.

Nevertheless, criticising the fluidity of nationality verges dangerously close to the notion of
probing someone with, ‘Where are you from? No, where are you really from?’ Just because
a player is not born in a particular country, doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to play
for it, through descent or commitment.

When it comes to residency, labelling the 23 players not born in Scotland as not Scottish is a
slippery slope. Would they suddenly be Scottish if they moved there when they were five
months old? What about moving at 10 or 15 years old?

And if someone moves at 20 years old and lives there until they die at 80, are they still not
Scottish? Wherever you set the boundary, it’s arbitrary.

World Rugby re-evaluated its eligibility requirement to be five years of residency in 2022.
Now for a 20-something-year-old, as many of these players are, they must spend around a
fifth of their lives in a new country before they can be eligible to play.

The residency rule stands as a testament to commitment. No rugby player can predict that
their career will last more than five years, certainly not at the international level. A player
who leaves their home country to play in another therefore must make this decision on that
inherent risk. Even after five years, eligibility does not guarantee a call-up to the team.

And if you are picked, undermining playing for a country where you weren’t born as simply
an alliance of convenience ignores the connections we create to places we have moved to.
Believing that we can only have one nationality is an archaic view. By living somewhere, you
enter the spectrum of nationality. And it is a spectrum. Someone can be ‘more’ Scottish
than you and that doesn’t negate the fact that you are Scottish.

These players establish their lives in these countries, possibly relocating their families,
investing in their systems and actively engaging in their society and we are to deny they
have any claim to nationality? We live in a modern and globalised world and rugby can’t be
separated from that.

Extend the residency period and tie eligibility to stronger familial bonds to quell the
outraged masses. Crackdown on clubs offering international players national team places as
a carrot in contract discussions, over developing the pipeline of domestic talent.

But let’s also confront our own prejudices. What prompts you to glance at a player’s name
on the team sheet or watch them on the pitch and think, ‘Oh, they’re not from there?’.

Why do we try to shield our nationalities from individuals who are committed to the
improvement of the country, in any capacity?

5 Responses

  1. South Holland to South Africa to Scotland. What an amazing journey over hundreds of years.

    What I truly admire is the way your great Wing speaks of Scotland, how the program developed him (he was still growing when he arrived), the opportunity he was given, and the relationships he has built.

    I am writing and watching from the states, and have no doubt, your 11 is going to inspire a lot of young children.

    Who am I to stop you, Scotland, if you want a little more pepper on that Clapshot.

  2. Well said. The rules are, as Mary points out, a realistic acknowledgement of the fluidity of the concept of nationality. They also have the excellent effect of making Test rugby more competitive and therefore more interesting. People who make a song and dance about the number of Scotland players born outside the country tend to be more interested in, or obsessed with, some concept of ethnic purity than in rugby

  3. Interestingly, the new darling of the England U20’s Henry Pollock is Scottish qualified through his Dad. Why do England continue to poach SQ players?

  4. In many ways the English rules where players are excluded from international rugby because they live and work in another country are more absurd than picking a player who effectively rebuilt his career by living in a new country (vdM failed a fitness test due to injury sustained in France but Edinburgh still signed him).

  5. The continued furore about the World Rugby qualification rules is ridiculous and seems to be aimed at Scotland more than is fair. NZ have been “harvesting” the South Sea Islands for decades (indeed that is exactly why the 3 year (Jack Dempsey) rule was invoked. Ireland (amongst others) have several residency qualified guys and simply by having an Empire – England and France are “blessed” with some great players.
    I for one am all for it within reason and hope to see Schoeman/Nel/VDM Jnr pull on the Scotland Jersey in a few years

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