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From Holyhead to Haverfordwest, scoring two tries for Wales on your debut is the kind of dream held by many youngsters – less so, perhaps, in Huntersville, New Zealand, the hometown of Wales’ newest rugby starlet Hadleigh Parkes. Yet his selection is an example of an increasingly common trend in the Home Nations – Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales – of capping players whose origins lie overseas.  

With no familial connection to Wales, Parkes’ eligibility depends upon World Rugby’s regulation 8.3 that decrees a player can qualify after “thirty-six consecutive months of residence” in an adopted country. That the centre’s first cap arrived exactly three years to the day he moved to Wales to join the Scarlets – the exact minimum required to qualify – has once again raised the question of what it means to ‘be’ an international player, and whether the residency rule dilutes the very function of nationally representative rugby teams.  

Parkes is 30 – hardly an age to be capping a player with a long future in test rugby ahead of him. Warren Gatland, whose unprecedented tenure as head coach of Wales is likely to end after the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, appeared to have few qualms about such notions: having played a key part in modernising the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) since his arrival over a decade ago, the two-time Grand Slam and Lions Series winning coach has slowly reneged structural influence to make the anticipated transitional period after his departure as smooth as possible – and, crucially, focus on management of the national side.  

“what does it mean to be an international player?”

The WRU’s so-called ‘Gatland’s Law’ was seen as a unified selection rule to keep home-grown talent in Wales; this has now been replaced by the controversial 60-cap rule, with Gatland distancing himself from the process, revealing he “wasn’t involved in the discussions between the regions and the union.” Scrum-half Rhys Webb, born in Bridgend and having played for the Ospreys region since 2007, will become unavailable for Wales when – at 29 years of age – he moves to the extortionately wealthy Toulon from next season, having gained only 29 international caps due to a spate of injuries in his club-career. Whilst the 60-cap rule is self-imposed by the WRU, rather than a World Rugby law, Webb’s misfortune makes for a painful juxtaposition with Parkes’ situation for those who want their national team to be born-and-bred in Wales.  

Image: flickr.com

The tournament in Japan will almost certainly be Gatland’s Welsh swansong, and for a coach who prides himself on knockout-rugby results, using a player of Parkes’ ability will solely be a rugby decision, irrespective of the wider impact selecting players like the Scarlets centre has on international rugby. This residency rule rankles with many, and whilst the qualification period will be increased to five years in 2020 to limit its prevalence in the game, the practice has already had a very real impact upon the landscape of international rugby in the professional era. Whilst birthplace alone is not the sole indicator of nationhood, of the initial squads selected for last year’s Autumn Internationals, Scotland named 20 players born outside the country, Wales nine, Ireland eight, and England six.  

The autumn of 2017 also saw Connacht centre Fualaofi ‘Bundaloo’ Aki capped by Ireland. Born and raised in New Zealand to Samoan parents, Aki grew up in Manurewa, South Auckland. His childhood friend Tim Nanai-Williams – cousin of the All Blacks’ Sonny Bill Williams – turned out in the same series, but where Aki chose Ireland, Nani-Williams opted for the Pacific Islanders – Samoa. Aki has fully embraced the culture in Western Ireland, signified by his current contract that will keep him there until 2020, yet the embrace is one that goes deeper than merely the financial. 

“I moved over here [Ireland] not really knowing what to expect but this place has become home to me and my family now,” Aki said last year. Connacht fans similarly have taken to Aki – recruited under former Head Coach Pat Lam – not just for his thunderous physicality and rapier agility, but for something more – something cultural. Whilst Aki was key in the province’s improbable title-winning 2015-16 Pro12 campaign with his performances on the field, it was the way in which Galway became ‘home’ off the pitch for the centre that enshrined his status as a cult figure amongst supporters: his celebrations with them after the play-off final in Edinburgh are a notorious indication of his embrace and the reciprocity with which that warmth is felt by player and supporters alike. 

“birth alone is not a guranteed idicator of identity”

Despite this, there was still criticism from some quarters for his inclusion in Joe Schmidt’s squad; he was taking the place of a more deserving, even if inferior, rugby-playing Irishman – that he was not Irish ‘enough’, if at all. The very idea of nationality – what it means, how we define it, how it is formed, fixed, gained, and lost – is queried by this notion, not least that it is a variable, sliding scale of identity. Because place of birth alone is not a guaranteed indicator of identity and nationhood in a world where travel and displacement is common, the residency rule has certainly raised a debate about not merely the selectorial intricacies of international rugby, but also the cultural element of nationality in international sport.  

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The fact Parkes grew up docking sheep in a country heavily reliant on the mining industry may ease the transition of a boyhood dream from donning an All Blacks’ shirt to the red of Wales, but this idea seemingly destabilises the importance placed on location as integral to identity. Despite their cultural similarities, New Zealand is geographically half the world away from Wales, so what else happens during a cultural conversion to another country – something that is perhaps required to happen, at least in the hearts and minds of the community of rugby supporters?  

When so many nations are divided down arbitrarily drawn, and often contested, borders the notion of permanence to nationality seems reductive in the face of such conflict and ambiguity. The material reality of geographical location is undeniably a key facet in forming this identity, yet a cultural identity is also predicated on elusive and imagined ideas, or commonalities, that transcend terra firma. The sense of cultural national pride seemingly requisite to supporting a national team relies on a definition of community and homeliness but what, and where, can this be found if not solely in the land?

One particular argument against Aki’s inclusion for Ireland was that he wouldn’t rise to the occasion when playing against England. Rugby within the four countries that make up the Home Nations is particularly fraught; for the three ‘Celtic’ sides, it is often considered politically significant to play England; a chance to kick back against a very literal, if primarily historic, oppressive force. 

Yet, paradoxically, these four nations are bound in the present day by their similarities and geographical proximity. With borders that are in some ways permeable yet in other ways fervently defined, it results in yet another conflicted ambiguity: many of the Celtic nations include English-born-or-raised players within their ranks – half of Scotland’s aforementioned 20 players born outside Scotland hail from England, seven of Wales’s nine, and two of Ireland’s eight. 

“an imperfect manner of classifying a sense of national identity”

Whilst there is a difference in forming cultural identity between birthplace and where you are raised, geography – particularly in the British Isles – appears an imperfect manner of classifying a sense of national identity. Parkes and Aki certainly seem to support this: when considering the overseas players who have represented the Home Nations, the common thread does not lie in located proximity but the English language – a key component in naturalisation.  

Long before New Zealand was named by Europeans, there was Aotearoa – the Māori name for the same lands; Wales, a derivative of “walha” which translates to “foreign”, is markedly distinct for Cymru – a derivative of “fellow-countrymen”. That shared sense of national duality through colonisation undoubtedly extends to their rugby cultures, too, and New Zealand coaches Graham Henry and Steve Hansen have used Wales as a springboard for successful stints in charge of the All Blacks.  

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Whilst the language of the British Isles is now officially and predominantly English, its global prevalence is predicated on the systemic erasure of Gaelic, Cymraeg and a number of other tongues – in turn, suppressing and erasing the different elements of consciousness languages create. Such a thing as language, then, seems a crucial element in national identity; an imperative aspect for any player qualifying through residency to appreciate. 

Parkes was forthright in the manner he was learning the anthem prior to his first cap: “Rhys Patchell’s been teaching me the anthem phonetically. My pronunciation probably isn’t the best but I’ve been trying my hardest.” Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau – Land Of My Fathers – is a defiant, celebratory defence of inheritance, land, and language; it may be easy to see the problem with sonic mimicry of an anthem that is used to rouse both players and supporters before kick-off, yet does this diminish Parkes’ ability to perform, or right to be chosen, for Wales when only a fifth of the country can fluently speak Welsh? Interestingly, in Amhrán na bhFiann – the Irish national anthem – the lines that translate to “Soldiers are we/whose lives are pledged to Ireland/some have come/from a land beyond the wave” actively embrace immigration for a national cause. On matchday in Dublin, no player sings the anthem louder than South African born Christiaan Johan Stander. 

Beyond language there is also the voice – still a key indicator of identity within Britain – and two rugby players perhaps indicate the existing biases that configure our understanding of migrant identities more than any other: Marland Yarde and Taulupe Faletau. Fortunately, the explicit racism from fans towards their own or visiting teams’ players that blighted the latter part of the twentieth century is an increasingly rare phenomenon, certainly in Britain; however, race itself still seems pertinent at times in the sporting arena, not least in conjunction with accent. 

“a pathway to public imagination”

Yarde moved to England from Saint Lucia at nine-year-old; Taulupe Faletau arrived in South Wales from Tonga aged seven. The route from the Caribbean to Britain is a well-known pathway and there is no indication that Yarde spent the early part of his formative years anywhere other than the south of England, to the point where many in the rugby community appear oblivious to the Sale winger’s history. Faletau’s is a less prominent pathway in the public imagination, and his novelty in this sense is more conspicuous – a Pacific Islander with a Valleys voice. In 2012, former Dragons coach Darren Edwards remarked: “The most endearing thing about Toby is that while he is proud of his Tongan descent, he has a great Welsh accent.” Both players’ parents arrived in Britain as economic migrants and, in essence, the same definition applies to Parkes and Aki and the increased earning potential on offer in European rugby.   

Image: Immanuel Giel

“It’s also the experiences off the field,” said Parkes on the appeal of moving to Wales. “You don’t know how lucky you are with Europe on your door[step].” The idea that economic migrants who move location to experience a new way of life, despite adhering to the legalities of national qualification, are less ‘of’ a nation than their team-mates is problematic; yet, equally, if an international team is an amalgam brought together by the pull of the pound, is this team an indicator of private economic might above any other representation of a nation? In short – is international rugby being unduly influenced by expensive quick-fixes for the traditional European powers whilst the three-year residency rule is still in operation? 

Rugby has certainly had its fair share of questionable caps in the past; during the infamous ‘Grannygate’ era in the 1990s, Wales mistakenly selected several players they believed to have a Welsh grandparent – still an accepted form of qualification for a national team – when no such lineage existed. Whilst that was an explicit contravention of the laws, there have also been other, legal incidents that have conjured derision; Ireland’s fervent embrace of the project player experiment, whereby young players are recruited from overseas with the intention to qualify them for Ireland; England and France selecting talent tempted by the vast earning potential at clubs in the Aviva Premiership and Top 14; even New Zealand has faced criticism for selecting players from the relatively less wealthy Pacific Islands of Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji, even if many Kiwis have made the opposite passage to play international rugby. 

“sliding scale of acceptability”

Hereditary qualification – the notion that nationhood is, in part, in the blood – is often considered less damning to fans than residency, yet also exists on a sliding scale of acceptability, with one grandparent’s place of birth at the low end of the spectrum. The Home Nations are looking to make use of this law, too – current England captain Dylan Hartley, born and raised in New Zealand, qualifies through his English mother – and it is something Glasgow and Scotland centre Nick Grigg recently encouraged. 

Image: NASA

“There are loads of guys that come through school and don’t quite make the New Zealand franchises,” said 25-year-old Grigg, who qualifies due to a Scottish grandfather. “I know it’s always good when you have the Scottish born-and-bred coming through, but there are lots of people back home that would be keen to come over and give it a shot as well.” Such cases are like undulating ripples from the epicentre of colonialism, the very human results of British expansion around the globe. The economic power in Europe is still able to exert its force to boost the quality of their test rugby teams even if it damages the cultural identity of the domestic and grassroots game. And whilst there is a worrying trend, most prominently from the Polynesian islands, of players being tempted by the wealth of Europe to the detriment of their national teams, it is Kiwi players who are seemingly most valued – without, somewhat incredibly, denting the All Blacks’ ability in the test arena. 

New Zealanders often exhibit a consistent grasp of the kind of consummate skills sometimes lacking in professional players from elsewhere, borne from a competitive, constructive environment that hones deft handling skills in 20 stone props and brave, technical tackling in diminutive play-making full-backs alike. Parkes and Aki are two such players – well-rounded and able and, whilst not quite good enough to represent the All Blacks, both add something to Wales and Ireland respectively.  

“if wales are real desperate…”

In 2010, rumours abounded that Gatland was looking to another New Zealander, Paul Tito of the Cardiff Blues. The second-row had been in Wales since 2007, becoming captain of the region in his second season; having qualified for Wales on residency, he was in the same position Parkes found himself in 2017. At 31 years old – a relative ‘peak’ age for some lock forwards, if beginning the descent down the far side of the apex – Tito turned down any prospective offer of a Wales cap unless the squad was in “dire, dire need”. A little over a year later, just before the 2011 Rugby World Cup in his home country, Tito reiterated this message – albeit with a caveat.  

“If [Wales] are real desperate and needed me to help out in New Zealand, I would put my hand up and be willing to help,” the Kiwi said. “Being from there, I would maybe be able to help out with a bit of local knowledge.” For Tito – capped by the Māori All Blacks and having represented New Zealand at U19 and U21 levels – there was little question that any cap would be out of necessity alone. New Zealand was his country – he spoke of moving his children ‘home’ at the end of that season – and a cap for Wales would not change this. However close that Wales cap may have been for Tito, in the end it never materialised.

Image: wikimedia.org

Tito’s candour and assured honesty on the subject of representing an ‘adopted’ country is a rarity in the public arena of the sporting world. Typically, it’s difficult to say what motivates a player in these situations; it’s almost impossible to know what they are thinking, the conflicted logic and emotions that whir behind the media soundbites and clear career benefits of remaining coy regarding a call-up from the country of a player’s current residence or familial lineage. That confusing mix of options makes Tito’s assessment of a potential call-up even more significant and, perhaps, shows how much has changed in the intervening years.

Few seem to query the right, far less the dedication and ability, of a player like Parkes to play for Wales under the current laws: the dissatisfaction is with the system and those who maintain it. Even when the qualification rules are met some selections still infuriate or disappoint supporters. The disgruntlement often appears to be with the apparent erosion of the status of a national team and it’s a difficult stance to dismiss.  

To be within a system – from putting emotional and physical energy into the sport from a young age, to investing time and money supporting the professional game when being paid to play rugby falls short of so many young men and women’s grasp – is an important facet of identity. To destabilise that allegiance by declaring that the result – both the bottom line and the scoreboard – matters more than any sense of community threatens the very lifeblood of the game – the people who helped build, and continue to sustain, rugby. 

“the simple answer to the shifting tide of identity in international rugby is pragmatism”

The simple answer to the shifting tide of identity in international rugby is pragmatic, rather than cultural. There is an abundance of ability in the southern hemisphere yet the economic strength of the north is understandably hard to ignore in a career that has a necessarily limited lifespan. From the inside, where rugby is a job – and one of goals and winning and losing – a player is a player, a coach is a coach, and, in a business of results, talent and expertise appears destined to triumph over identity in a hierarchy of importance, despite the cultural ramifications. 

As for a more nuanced reflection on national identity, the manner in which our understanding of identity is undermined by selections like Parkes’ and Aki’s reveals, if nothing else, the lack of stasis inherent to nationhood; it is something less stable than the ground upon which we place borders; a series of distinctions eroded and redeveloped over time like the tide lapping at a shoreline. With responsibilities as an employer, a business of entertainment, and a community of variously enfranchised members, the way professional sport adapts and responds to society and culture remains intriguing. In this sense, rugby acts as a reflection of society, but also a mirror, illuminating and effecting change within its sphere of influence. And, if Parkes had any misgivings about representing Wales prior to his debut, scoring two tries in the Principality Stadium is just about the perfect way to help him settle in to his new home.

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