Tonga could be set to benefit the most ahead of the 2023 World Cup from new changes to eligibility criteria for players wanting to swap national allegiances.
World Rugby announced on Friday that foreign citizens can return to their country of birth, or even through heritage to the nationality of their parents or grandparents regardless of their passport.
The new rule commences from January 1, 2022, but eligible players will need to stand down from the international game for three years should they have already played Test matches elsewhere.
The changes were introduced after a push from the players’ association representing Pacific players.
The Tongans could recall former All Blacks Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua and George Moala for the World Cup in France after not having played for New Zealand since 2019, fulfilling the criteria next year of being absent from Test rugby in the past three years.
Pacific Rugby players welfare executive director Mike Umaga, who was born in Auckland but played 13 times for Western Samoa, believes international rugby will have a more level playing field after larger nations initially lured talent with money since the professional era of the game began in 1996.
“I think at this stage, Tonga will be the biggest winners at this moment in time and they still have a qualifying match to play, but if you’ve got stars like that to call on, I think it will be a very exciting time for them,” Umaga spoke on the Pacific Media Network in New Zealand.
“But also, we’re still two years out, so there will be a few more that will become available.
“I think it means with all these players available, for the next World Cup would be what it’s meant to be of the best players in the world being available on that stage – that’s what is really exciting.
“Hopefully we can see Pacific islands (nations) in and around the quarter-finals and semi-finals, or even a final – wouldn’t that be great?”
“That’s what we’ve all tried to work towards.”
Piutau was set to turn out in Tongan colours under the old IRB ruling amid last year’s Olympic sevens qualifying tournament, but club commitments in Europe stifled the opportunity at the final stage.
But former All Black Malakai Fekitoa did change allegiance to Tonga at the same tournament.
Umaga says Pacific Island players, often caught up between their culture and birthplace, desperately required greater flexibility these days against the backdrop of playing for New Zealand and Australia.
His brother, Tana Umaga, chose the path towards 74 caps for the All Blacks while Mike’s son, Jacob Umaga, debuted for England just last year.
“It’s all about options – some of them were born here, but we are good at telling the story of our forefathers, which they do buy into,” Umaga said.
“I have that situation with my oldest son Jacob, who has been capped for England, but would love nothing more than to put on the jersey of the Manu Samoa, so this could be a reality for him.”
Jacob Umaga, 23, was born in England while his father commenced an eight-season stint for English club Rotherham, but could now dismiss playing for his birthplace in favour of following his ancestry.
But while players from the islands will gain the most in the world from rugby’s latest eligibility rules, it will also only allow players to change unions just the once.
Umaga felt the natural inclination of players of Pacific heritage was to return to their roots no matter what nationality the family had adopted.
“They would love to see nothing more than to be able to give back; that’s what we’re brought up with in rugby,” he said.
“It’s your time to give back and it’s an opportune time for those guys to give back to their countries of birth, and also of heritage, but also being this far away from the islands, it gives us an opportunity to unify our community and knowing there is an outcome for our next generation who may not want to play for a country in say Europe.
“Actually, they may want to play for the home of their grandparents.”
Umaga says the next step is to assist a number of Pacific rugby unions in their sustainability through a greater revenue share and funding for player development.
The introduction of new Super Rugby franchises, Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua, into a revitalised Pacific regional competition next year will go a long way towards achieving that ambition.
“When the Pacific Islands teams are going well, the general public will love to watch them play, but when you’re packing out stadiums, that whole 80-90,000 and you don’t get any of that, it’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow,” he said.
“It takes two teams to play a game and if there’s nothing coming back, we’ve got to ask the question why is that and on the flip side of that, not many of the tier 1 nations tour our Pacific nations, so we don’t get an opportunity to get any funding back if they come to our shores.”