Outsiders and insiders

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I HAVE just returned from London, where I looked in vain for some evidence of excitement building up for the Rugby World Cup.

Understandably, I guess, it has been eclipsed by Thursday’s general election, which will be as closely fought as the play-offs between the world’s top rugby teams are likely to be in a few months’ time.

The latest polls show the Conservatives and Labour neck and neck, with the third most popular party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), at 12%. UKIP, with its narrow definition of Britishness and its anti-immigrant stance, has to constantly fend off accusations of racism.

For instance, they have just had to ditch one of their prospective MPs, Robert Blay, for threatening to put “a bullet between the eyes” of his Conservative opponent if he ever became prime minister. Ranil Jayawardene, said Blay, was “not British enough to be in our parliament” because his father was born in Sri Lanka.

We are not the only country struggling with xenophobia. Between the dodgier elements of UKIP and an ongoing demonisation of immigrants in the right-wing media, those perceived as outsiders might not feel too welcome in Britain either.

Unless they happen to be rugby players. The inaugural European Champions Cup, which replaced the Heineken Cup, has intensified the competition between French and English clubs and some of the latter are campaigning to be allowed to spend more on recruitment, which means more players from the rugby-rich southern hemisphere.

In another closely fought contest, Toulon last Saturday beat Clermont to take the European crown for the third time in a row. Toulon are the game-changers in European rugby. Their continued ascendance has rattled the English clubs.

Toulon owner Mourad Boudjelellal has the money to buy the best players from all over the world. The English clubs, though, have a salary cap of £5m. The Saracens have been accused of breaching this cap, a charge they vigorously deny. However, the owner of Saracens, Nigel Wray, is quoted as saying the salary cap “does not allow us to compete on a level playing field with teams in Europe”.

However, as Robert Kitson points out in the Guardian, it is not simply unlimited funds that make Toulon impregnable.

“The collective desire to deliver a suitably grand send-off for their three soon-to-retire heavyweights, Ali Williams, Bakkies Botha and Carl Hayman — the trio’s names were even stitched into the inside of the team’s jerseys” — helped to give Toulon the edge on Saturday.

“Toulon may have loads of money but the French champions also have the good sense to sign committed people rather than mercenaries … it is Toulon’s can-do attitude towards recruitment that is taking them to places others cannot reach.”

Outsiders can become insiders then, given the right attitude by the hosts.

The looming Rugby World Cup gives the Us and Them question a new impetus.

Toulon player Steffon Armitage is the subject of hot debate. Britain’s Rugby Football Union stipulates that, in order to be considered for the England squad, a player must play in the Aviva Premiership. Exceptions are permitted, though, and one would have thought Armitage’s talents would have had England coach Stuart Lancaster calling.

Apparently, Lancaster is afraid introducing an outsider — even a British one — would upset his current team.

Pragmatic Australia have no such qualms. The Australian Rugby Union has amended its RWC eligibility rules in time to give another Toulon veteran a shot at inclusion. Matt Giteau might get another chance to play for his country. When he left Australia for France, the rules were that foreign-based players were no longer eligible to play for the Wallabies. The new rules allow players with over 60 Test caps and at least seven years with Australian rugby into the squad.

We too have changed our rules since Heyneke Meyer became coach. The fact that the RWC will be played in the UK means players accustomed to northern hemisphere conditions will have an edge. That includes another Toulon player, Bryan Habana. Described last week in the London Sunday Times as “still quick but not lightning anymore and he spends too much time moaning”, Habana is nevertheless guaranteed a spot in the Springbok squad.

Meantime, World Rugby is under pressure to review its rule that allows foreign players to qualify for a national squad if they have lived in their host country for three consecutive years and have not been capped at A level in their country of birth. Rory Kockott qualifies to play for France under this rule.

I hope they review it. I think it takes the expediency of professionalism a bit too far. Rugby World Cups bring out the visceral patriotism in most of us and we ought to be allowed to indulge it once every four years, safe in the knowledge that every player in our team is indeed one of us.


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