MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A burgeoning contingent of overseas-based players bodes well for Australian rugby’s hopes of recapturing former glories but also leaves the national federation facing awkward questions about its eligibility laws.
Coach Dave Rennie added France-based Rory Arnold, Will Skelton and Tolu Latu to his squad for the season-ending tour of the northern hemisphere despite all three falling foul of the “Giteau Law”, which excludes players with less than 60 test caps.
With Japan-based centre Samu Kerevi and loose forward Sean McMahon already returning to the Wallabies during the Rugby Championship, Rennie could now have five players in a matchday squad that fail to meet the threshold.
Rugby Australia (RA) said in August it was rethinking the Law to improve the depth at Rennie’s disposal but the governing body has not disclosed any binding decisions.
Instead, it has cast the exemptions as a temporary measure based on “extenuating circumstances” in the COVID-19 era, including the need to balance the “mental and physical wellbeing of players”.
“We have had to be pragmatic and realistic in how we manage our wider squad this year,” RA boss Andy Marinos said on Friday.
“We may look to supplement the squad going forward in positions where there is a notable gap but within a capped environment, and not to the extent that we have had to adapt this year.”
The Giteau Law was intended to protect domestic rugby and prevent a talent drain to more lucrative markets but pundits and fans have wearied of it, blaming it for their slide down the world rankings and a quarter-final exit at the 2019 World Cup.
South Africa showed how quickly things can turn around by winning the World Cup less than three years after scrapping their own eligibility rule.
Australia, which won the last of their two World Cups in 1999, might dream of a similar ascent.
Rennie was offered — but declined to take up — two exemptions from the Giteau Law in his first season in charge last year, citing the need to reward home-based players first.
But after the Wallabies lost the Bledisloe Cup to New Zealand for a 19th successive year in August, Kerevi was rushed back into the side for the Rugby Championship.
With Kerevi back in their ranks, Australia have risen to third in the world, with the Fiji-born midfielder igniting their attack in four straight wins over South Africa and Argentina.
What the Wallabies might do with the rest of their ‘foreign legion’ in action will have fans eagerly awaiting the November tests against Scotland, England and Wales.
Rennie said his preference was still to pick from Australia, which might be cold comfort to the home-based players that made way for Skelton et al in Friday’s squad.
He also suggested that bringing the overseas-based players back into camp might convince them to abandon Europe and return home.
“I think it’s important that some of these guys are getting a taste of the environment, of the culture and that encourages them to come back and play here,” he said.
RA said it would revisit the Giteau Law at the end of the tour but closing the floodgates may be much harder than opening them as the 2023 World Cup in France draws closer.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)