Selection Policies are now a key part of the modern game with top tier nations trying to keep top players in their domestic leagues.

These range from England, Ireland and New Zealand (among others) who take a no-nonsense approach with players plying their trade abroad to Scotland. Scotland is one of the few top-tier nations who have no laws on selection.

Nick Evans is probably the most famous All Black not to be called up when needed.
Photo: Charlie, via Flickr

There are 3 key points of selection policies; wildcards, exceptional circumstances and world cup years.

Wildcards

The old Welsh system used to include three “wildcards“. These were players who wouldn’t be selected as they played outside of Wales but were selected. The problem with this system was top players would leave Wales and believe they would be selected as a wildcard. This led to talent being lost as more than three top players left and were relying on the wildcard selection to keep their international career alive.

Exceptional circumstances

Both Ireland and England allow “exceptional circumstances” which England have never used. Ireland have only really used this for Sexton. England has refused to use this in three main situations. First and most recently Sam Underhill whilst he was at the Ospreys. Many pundits were calling for the selection of the hard-tackling flanker under the “exceptional circumstances” of him being at university. However, he wasn’t selected till the summer tour to Argentina. At this point move to Bath had been finalised and he was essentially playing in England. Certainly according to the RFU anyway.

The other two cases involve players playing in France. Both had just won European Player of The Year and neither were selected despite their exceptional form. Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon, the 2014 and 2015 European players of the year.

Sexton

In recent years Ireland have only selected from the provinces (Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht.) This leads to Pro12 winner Tadgh Beirne moving to Munster to better his chances of getting an elusive Ireland cap. On the other hand, Gareth Steenson who won the Aviva Premiership with Exeter is staying on the English south coast hoping to win a second title. Whilst Ireland are yet to solidify a back up to Jonny Sexton for the RWC next year.

Jonny Sexton is one of the very few Ireland internationals who won a cap whilst playing their domestic rugby outside of the provinces. Whilst at Racing 92 between 2013 and 2015 coach Joe Schmidt refused to drop the formidable fly-half. He proved his worth on both the 2013 and 2017 Lions tours playing in all 6 tests. The Leinster man has made 68 appearances in the green jersey and has scored 639 points. This makes him the second highest points scorer for Ireland only behind Ronan O’Gara.

Sexton was undroppable by Schmidt even when in France.
Photo: Warwick Gastinger, via Flickr

World Cup years

Selection for Argentinian internationals between World Cups means they have to play in Argentina. Most likely with their Super Rugby team Jaguares. This leads to the players knowing each other’s game very well but less squad depth as well as less depth in style of play. However, during World Cup years players outside Argentina can play obviously to increase their chances of emulating their 4th place finish in 2015 (and 3rd in 2007).

This means Toulon star Facundo Isa can play in 2019 but not 2018 or 2020. The fact that there is only one team in Argentina competing in one of the big leagues means a selection policy like the one they currently use limits their ability to grow and improve. For a selection policy so limiting a country, in my opinion, needs at least four domestic teams.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the best selection policies are the strictest such as in England, Ireland and New Zealand. These work because they leave no room for interpretations and allow no special treatment to certain players. The one problem with these type of policies is that you need plenty of domestic teams. This can be just four as shown by Ireland, however, all of these teams need to be competitive. This is why a system so strict wouldn’t work in Wales, as only one or two of the regions are truly competitive. The new Welsh system is the second best option as it allows some players to leave and play elsewhere which gives opportunities to new younger players who are just emerging.

Finally, the worst selection policy is that of Argentina. It stifles development, ruins squad depth, stops young players emerging and makes players choose between their domestic and national career. I would love to hear your opinions on selection policies.

Which ones do you think work and how they should improve? Do you think it would impact the current Six Nations if sides were more (or less) strict?

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Author: Ollie Evans

I’m from South Wales and have grown up with rugby all around me and the Millenium Stadium on my doorstep. A massive fan of all things rugby, but never been particularly good despite having played since I was 6.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Ollie Evans for a great article.
    As a South African this is a very big topic locally, currently there are well over 300 Super Rugby eligible players, plying their trade internationally. We have a 30 cap system except during a RWC year. Honestly I am pretty happy with this policy, but I think they will eventually either drop the 30 caps or reduce it to 20, unless they come up with another plan. Or they could go completely in a different direction I have stopped predicting what SARU will do.

    I have always felt that Super Rugby should open its doors to other member countries in SANZAAR. So any player from the five nations that compete at Super Rugby, can be selected for their national sides regardless of what team they play for.

    Imagine more depth in Argentina if they have another 10 players in other Super Rugby franchises. I also think how much depth New Zealand has and having a few more players available in other franchises can only be a good thing.

    Great Article

    • Argentina’s rule actually allows players playing in all Super Rugby teams to be eligible for the national team. But simply truth is that, with the exception of Cubelli playing at Brumbies for 2 years, Super Rugby teams simply don’t hire Argentinians.
      Another caveat for Argentina is that it is the only tier-1 country that has not a single naturalized player, which an important dimension of the selection process not mentioned in the article
      With this said, I agree that the current policy in Argentina is not bearing the expected fruits and should be revised (at least, something in the lines of the minimum caps threshold)
      Cheers

      • I agree Argentina need to desperately need to revise their system as one of the key things for international squads is having players train together and learn how each other plays. Yes, Argentina have taken this to an extreme but the main problem is that world class players such as Isa and maybe Cordero. Also players playing at multiple sides allows the team to try new things and change tactics if the game isn’t going their way.

  2. Great work on the article Ollie, really enjoyed it. I guess my take from this is that selection policies which are not of the unwavering kind are just a slippery slope towards the destruction of a national side. Even the slightest exception shows players that they can have their cake and eat it. In other words, they can chase big money and play for their national sides. Granted, if a player has played 50+ tests then perhaps they earn that right. But if you allow loopholes such as the university issue, then more and more young players start exploiting those holes, and you get to the point where most players aren’t developing combinations in domestic leagues, and international sides become “all star” teams. Whereas in New Zealand, young guys know that if they go overseas, they’ve got no shot at selection and fall into irrelevancy to the general public. Put simply, I agree with you.

    • The problem is if the teams aren’t good enough to support the amount of top talent then you have problems. Because a complete blanket ban on players playing abroad means players will drop their national side for the cash. For instance, you wouldn’t expect an emerging nation to use it or even Wales or Scotland.

    • Slippery slope is exactly right David. It’s no coincidence that the three top test teams are all unwavering on this. Australia have kept on losing more players since Cheika brought in Giteau’s law in 2015 and South Is really struggling just two years after nearly knocking the All Blacks out of the World Cup.

  3. Hi Ollie, great article. I’m starting to like the rule change Wales has made, it has started to bite. I can’t see any way Ross Moriarty would have gone to the Dragons without this rule, and I’m sure more will follow. The only proviso I would make is to include a rule that also takes into account regional appearances, say 150 (tu get to thisamount a player would have had to play in Wales for about seven seasons). This would allow players such as Rhys Webb to be picked (he’s missed many otential caps through injury). Also I think that NZ have to only pick players from thier Super clubs. With the money on offer from English & French clubs (see thye new Sapouga deal) the lure of the All BLacks jersey may be the only thing that keeps them in NZ
    Cheers
    Rob

  4. This is a really important issue I feel, glad somebody wrote an article on the subject! The only countries that are able to implement a ‘domestic players only’ selection policy are the ones with the largest strength in depth and most competitive club sides. It’s a policy that won’t work for every international team.
    I admire the initiative of Argentina, but you can’t build enough strength in depth by choosing all of your international players from one club team. How is someone like the very promising Patricio Fernandez supposed to get a chance at fly half if he never gets a chance at the Jaguares because Hernandez plays every game? The fact is that he can’t get the game time to improve his skills, which is the reason why he had to go to Clermont. Now as a result he won’t currently be available for selection for Argentina. Seems a bit mad to me…

  5. My two bits: Argentina’s lock-up policy was a consequence of Argentina never having had a professional Rugby Union team. There was genuine concern that Argentina was not going to field a competitive SR side, and the mucky mucks in charge decided to limit Puma participation to those who played in SR.

    Obviously the results have been lackluster at the Puma level since this lock-up was established, but on the other hand, the Jaguars have been relatively successful (or at least successful in the sense that they have been competitive and non-embarrassing).

    There’s a lot of rumbling in the Argentinean media (*) about when this policy will change, but it seems like it will only change once the new President of the Argentinean Rugby Union (and his Executive Council) is chosen in March (not sure as to the exact date).

    (*) I’m not Argentinean and I don’t live in Argentina, but I am a Spanish speaker and a very active follower of various Argentinean Rugby sides.

  6. I agree with George Wood. And further, believe that even a bad policy will bear little effect in countries with depth (i.e. NZ and England). Not sure these policies are for the good of the game though perhaps they serve the interests of the Unions. Perhaps the policies should focus on foreign players being nationalized by other countries rather than put the lid on professional rugby players not being eligible to play for their country because they searched better economic terms elsewhere. And then the solution for this obviously over constraining rule is to come up with imaginative policy exceptions. If we look at other sports, the No 1 sport in the world is soccer, it has no restrictions at club levels, save for amounts of foreigners in a squad, and has restrictions as regards foreign players nationalized. For instance, Leo Messi has played soccer since young in Barcelona, and then played for the Argentine national squad. This has been goof for Messi, for Barcelona, for the Argentine National team and in my view, it has been good for the Game. In my view, when it comes to national squads, the best players should be eligible regardless of where they play.

  7. I would like to say that I am, as an argentinian, very proud of our selection policy. Argentina is the only country in the world of rugby that has no “no native” players. I see this situation ridiculous for countries as New Zealand or England. Are there native players not so good enough to be the only elegible players for those squads? I think this law is not only an unnecessary advantage for those countries, but very bad for the progression of the other countries too.
    In the other hand I think that to win is not the only purpose of this game. There are things very important for us, as proud, the concept of fatherland, friendship, love for your country, that also counts. And I prefer to loose with our own forces that to win with the help of a sistem that allows you to include people that doesn’t understand who you are. That’s because I agree with the decision of not including people from other countries in our national squad.
    Other thing is that, I think, rugby is seen sometimes by anglosaxon people as something like a commonwealth sport. The referees, they only speak English (with a pair of exceptions) and our way to live rugby is seen sometimes as something odd and not acceptable for anglosaxon people. They define our players as undisciplinated. But there’s a great historical tradition behind our way to see this sport, there’s the France way too. We love to play with passion and cry sometimes, to hug our friends, not only shake hands, and sometimes a punch is not a big deal. A fijian player or a scottish one, would him understand it? I think rugby is a better spectacle with Argentina. Or not?
    Perhaps this year the elective policy changes. I hope not.
    I would like to say also that my opinion is not shared for the majority of the rugby community. It is just an opinion.
    Thank you for this post.

    • Hi Boris66, I think you also need to take into account economic immigration. Lots of players with island heritage play for New Zealand for example, but in most cases their parents moved there for work reasons while they were very young. In English rugby we have players with heritage from all over the world, but rarely did they move to the UK as adults for rugby. The likes of Manu Tuilagi, Billy & Mako Vunipola etc grew up in England, learned their rugby in England and are as much English as they are islander. Equally lots of people are born abroad, for example Sergio Parisse or Alex Corbisiero, but move back to what they always considered their home country later. I like the 5 year rule, I think that will help. However, even if residency were abolished completely, most of the players you think of as foreign would still be able to play for the same countries they do now.

    • That’s a brilliant post, Boris. Your boys and fans have brought something special to Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, such passion and verve. One of my favourite moments in rugby is witnessing your Under 20s belting out the national anthem before a game.

      It was so sad to see a wonderful player like Isa stolen from the international game so young, with absolutely no compensation paid to the union that developed him. One of the big issues for World Rugby.

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