At the turn of the 1990s, Abdelatif Benazzi, second row born in Morocco, played twelve matches in the colors of his native country. His career with the Atlas Lions was short-lived. His talent quickly pushed him into the ranks of the XV of France, for which he played 78 matches, was its captain and one of the major figures.
At the time, Benazzi was able to change his jersey because he had not played in a World Cup qualifying match. The framework was then tightened: until recently, as soon as a player had a senior cap, he could no longer wear another national tunic.
A problematic situation for some nations, particularly those in the Pacific Islands (Fiji, Tonga and Samoa). Australia and New Zealand have often drawn from the diaspora to fill their teams. Even if it means leaving players on the sidelines, who have become ineligible for the country of their roots, after only a few selections.
“It’s a very good change for rugby.”
Wanting to strengthen “small” nations, World Rugby decided in 2021 to modify the eligibility rules, allowing players who have not been selected for three years to be called up to another national team, provided they have at least one grandparent born in the country in question. The 2023 World Cup is the first World Cup to be held with this new regulation.
Unsurprisingly, the selections of Samoa and Tonga are the main beneficiaries. The first named attracted flyhalf Lima Sopoaga, flanker Steven Luatua and prop Charlie Faumuina (16, 15 and 50 caps respectively with the All Blacks), as well as Christian Leali'ifano (26 caps with the Australia).
Tonga have recruited ex-Wallaby Adam Coleman (38 caps), Pita Ahki (several matches with the New Zealand sevens team) as well as four former All Blacks: Charles Piutau (17 caps), Vaea Fifita ( 11 selections), Augustine Pulu (2 selections) as well as George Moala (4 selections). The latter, however, could not set foot on the French lawns because he is suspended until the end of the group stage. Namibia, for its part, will be able to count on Richard Hardwick (2 caps for Australia).
This change has not only benefited the second-ranked teams in the world: South Africa will count in its troops the former Irish international Jean Kleyn (5 caps) and Scotland on the former Australian flanker Jack Dempsey (14 caps).
Some profiles correspond perfectly to what World Rugby anticipated. This is the case of Augustine Pulu, in the Tongan group after having been blocked for a long time by his two selections with New Zealand, or of Pita Ahki, barred from Tonga for a few appearances with the New Zealand sevens rugby team. -Zealand. “The fact that Charles Piutau hasn’t played an international match for years is a real shame. It’s really great to see him again. It’s a very good change for rugby,” rejoices All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick.
Other changes seem far from the initial objectives of the international federation. Although he was not selected for the World Cup due to an injury, Israel Folau, born in Minto (Australia), has already played several matches with Tonga. However, he was removed from the Wallabies – after 73 caps – following the publication of homophobic comments on social networks.
The rule change does not only concern players blocked by a handful of selections played a long time ago. Charlie Faumuina took part in 50 matches with the fern jersey of the All Blakcs, including the victorious final at the 2015 World Cup, before joining Samoa. As for Jean Kleyn, he will perhaps face his former Irish teammates, with whom he played only a few years ago, and who will cross paths with South Africa in the group stage.
The three-year period before a change of sporting nationality therefore means that it is possible to swap the tunic of one selection for another from one World Cup to another, and even to anticipate this development. The New Zealand press thus attributes to Richie Mo'unga, playing master of the All Blacks, the project of wearing the colors of Tonga in 2027, in Australia. All things considered, it's a bit as if Romain Ntamack was planning to play for Cameroon, the country of his paternal grandfather. A case far from the model originally envisaged by World Rugby.