Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Project players and Bundee Aki

Posted on 10 November 2017 by Danny Ruddock

Rob Herring, CJ Stander, Bundee Aki, Nathan Hughes, WP Nel and Cornell du Preez. These are all players with no familial connection to the country they will represent this weekend.

Taking out the smallest six nation country, Italy, these players represent the total amount of “project players” representing the five largest northern hemisphere nations.

These players have all completed the three-year residency required by World Rugby to play for their adoptive nation.

Interestingly, France have no players in their 23 who could be classified as a project player, despite the finger often being pointed at them for exploitation of the rules.

It might be an anomaly. Players like Uni Antonio, Virimi Vakatawa and Scott Spedding all came to France via other nations, and have been regulars in recent years.

World Rugby has already acted to change the residency rule. From 2019, the requirement will be five years rather than three. Or more appropriately, for professionals it is two contracts rather than one. Either way, it is a much bigger commitment.

But as it stands, it is three years. Out of the 115 players representing their country under these rules, 5% of them have qualified on their three-year stay alone.

It is a small sample, but it is hardly a pandemic and something World Rugby have already addressed.

Why then has Bundee Aki’s inclusion in the Irish squad caused so much debate within the country?

Indeed, the concept of being Irish in a sporting concept was given more airtime than the Paradise Papers on a primetime national news show Wednesday night.

With former Irish International Neil Francis saying: “That is fundamentally wrong. That is ethically and morally wrong in terms of representing your country. Handing out jerseys to people who say that is fundamentally wrong.”

He was responding to comments made last year by the the 27-year-old, New Zealand born centre,

“I have enjoyed Irish culture and stuff but it is wrong for me to say I am Irish.” He said.

Since Joe Schmidt has been the Irish head coach he has given debuts to eight players who have qualified via the residency rule.

Embed from Getty Images

Most have given cause for grumbling in certain quarters, but none have caused the national debate Aki has.

It might be to do with the comments Aki made, but it might be something else.

Maybe it is the fact that Bundee Aki’s Pacific heritage makes him stand out and makes him more noticeable to people. Maybe for some his name does not fit, maybe for others it is his face that doesn’t fit.

Stander, another player for Ireland under the residency rule, has learned the Irish national anthem and has gone the extra mile to be Irish and embrace what it means.

In reality, what you learn – and even to an extent what you feel – does not distinguish two professional athletes with no affinity to a country, except for the fact they have worked in it.

Payne, Stander and Herring have an obvious thing in common: they are white, they can slip into an Irish squad and the average punter does not notice.

Unless you know the player, you are none the wiser that Herring is a South African, born and bred.

I am not accusing a nation of being racist, but it is a lot easier to see a perceived problem when the visual is on the front page.

It is not Aki’s fault that Ireland have offered him that opportunity. The coverage on him personally is, as Connor Muray said to the press earlier this week, incredibly unfair.

It might be an overreaction maybe he is the import that broke the camel’s back, maybe he is just that one player too many.

There is no doubt Bundee Aki is merely playing by the rules, not making them. He has earned his right to play for Ireland, not by birth, but through his performances and immense rugby talent.

Photo credit: ©INPHO/James Crombie