The thought of Carl Fearns becoming a surrogate Frenchman fills me with dread. This is not so much because the Lyon-based Liverpudlian is a formidable back row forward who could enhance France’s clout going into the 2019 World Cup, but because it is another instance of rank mismanagement by World Rugby.
The governing body of the global game have trumpeted the introduction of their revised five-year residency rule as if somehow it is the game’s knight in shining armour addressing an obvious injustice. The fact that the injustice of turning international rugby into a flags-of-convenience lottery is something that World Rugby (IRB) perpetrated all by themselves, with their crass decision to allow a three-year residency rule, is airbrushed out of the picture.
The three-year rule has not only done untold damage to the aspirations of second tier rugby nations like Fiji, Samoa and Tonga – who have had their players cherry-picked by richer nations – it also flies in the face of the tribalism that is such an integral part of international rugby, and, to a lesser extent, the club game. This tribalism is something that should be cherished rather than trampled on, particularly in a sport in which pre-and post-match camaraderie between rival supporters is a long-established tradition.
The reality is that most fans want to support their national teams because they identify with them through ancestry and a shared sense of history and heritage. Added to that there is the important weave of clubs – which are important community hubs in every rugby nation – seeing players who have been nurtured by them reach their full potential by achieving national honours.
I have no doubt that Fearns, who captained England at 18 Group level and was part of the 2009 England Junior World Championship squad before signing for Sale Sharks, would opt to play for England above all else. Unfortunately, having decided to play club rugby in France for the last two years, following his departure from Bath, he has fallen foul of the RFU’s overseas player rule, and is ineligible for his country.
In my view it is understandable that in a professional sport most players will want to play at the highest level possible, and if the governing body makes ropey rules they will take advantage of the loopholes – and this is exactly what Fearns intends to do according to an interview with the Daily Mail.
Having had a telephone conversation with England coach Eddie Jones it was made clear to Fearns that he would have to move back to a Premiership club if he wanted to be part of the Red Rose 2019 World Cup plans. However, having
withdrawn from a proposed move to Gloucester this summer to stay with Lyon, Fearns, 28, has decided that if France want him when he completes his three years residency at the end of this season that he will not turn them down.
My issue is less with Fearns than with those in World Rugby who have framed the new five-year regulation and then failed to put it into practice immediately. For those of you who are perplexed, Fearns will be eligible for France because the world global body have put in a senseless moratorium. Rather than introducing the new ruling immediately after making the decision in May, World Rugby are sitting on their hands until December 2020 before enforcing it.
This leeway allows plundering nations to line up more ‘project players’ – where South African youngsters in particular are groomed to fill problem positions by other nations – or South Pacific talent before the 2019 World Cup.
This practice encourages players to take the mercenary route of opting for countries that, outside their desire to play at the highest level, are not the ones they identify most closely with through family and heritage.
Sadly, England are among the worst offenders, having encouraged the Fijian-born Nathan Hughes and Samoan Denny Solomona to swap flags on Jones’ watch.
Irrespective, the Fearns case also throws up an interesting challenge for French Rugby Federation president Bernard Laporte to tackle.
Laporte, who coached France to losing World Cup semi-finals against England in 2003 and 2007, will be hell bent on trying to ensure that France are not the fall guys in the 2019 ‘pool of death’ that sees them locked in a three-way struggle with England and Argentina.
Laporte has said that France will introduce the five-year ruling immediately, and has spoken forcefully against poaching players from other countries at the expense of their home-grown French counterparts.
Laporte has said that anyone considered for France must be a French passport holder. He also made this statement: “We have taken the political decision to stop playing foreign players in the French team. It is a strong message to French academies and our youngsters that we will play a maximum number of Frenchmen.”
There is little doubt that Fearns is a force of nature when he is at the top of his game, and would be a dynamic addition to the French pack. So will it be Monsieur Fearns lining up against England in Japan, or will Bernie decide that he should remain plain old Mr Fearns?
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