Behind the arms race for the dual-qualified rugby talent

The quintet that made their England debut in Rome last weekend – Chandler Cunningham-South, Fraser Dingwall, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Ethan Roots and Fin Smith – all had one interesting trait in common; they all qualified to play for other countries and for England.

If you were cynical, you might argue that it was a smart move by head coach Steve Borthwick to beat them all against Italy, to avoid losing those talented players to other countries later on.

World Rugby’s move in late 2021 to relax restrictions on players being ‘captured’ by one association, where previously players could only play international rugby for that team, has led to what remains a huge, career-defining decision does not come with the same restrictions if a player falls out of favor. Players can now switch countries after a period of three years, provided they were born or have a parent or grandparent from that country. An example in this year’s Six Nations is new Scotland sponsor Alec Hepburn, who was capped by England. in 2018.

However, the arms race to lure top talents to represent a country at Test level remains as fervent as ever and also starts earlier than you may realise, from the time emerging talents are still at school level.

Cam Redpath is an interesting example. In 2018, Redpath was called up to train with the England squad when he was just 17 and still an apprentice to Sedbergh. The son of former Scotland captain and scrum-half Bryan Redpath, had it not been for an ill-timed ACL injury there is a good chance Redpath would have been capped by England on the summer tour to South Africa while still a player. teenager.

Eddie Jones and England then moved on, while Redpath once returned to full fitness playing for England Under-20s in the summer of 2019. Eighteen months later, Redpath was called up to the Scotland squad for the Six Nations, where he made his debut on the inside line. center in a win against… England. In a parallel universe where his knee remains unscathed, perhaps Redpath wore white instead of blue on that historic day for Scotland as they won at Twickenham for the first time since 1983.

Cameron Redpath - Behind the arms race for dual-qualified rugby talentCameron Redpath - Behind the arms race for dual-qualified rugby talent

Scotland’s Cameron Redpath (centre) could have represented England had he not been injured – PA/David Davies

What initially started as ‘Exiles’ clubs for Scotland, Wales and Ireland within the English system, providing a base for people abroad to reconnect with home, has gradually evolved into the talent identification programs of today. For Scotland, that operation is essential given their smaller player pool and the fact they only have two professional teams in Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh. Therefore, 23 players in their roster are dually qualified, either due to residency or family ties.

Through the Scottish Qualified Program (SQ), players can register themselves or be nominated, with volunteer coaches then holding training sessions and mapping individual pathways for young players, while including them in age group squads and liaising with parents, schools and colleges. Ben White, now Scotland’s starting scrum-half who qualifies through a grandparent, initially started with the Scotland Under-16s before joining the England set-up, after which he became captain of England’s Under-20s and played for England against the Barbarians before the call came from Scotland.

Wales now has the WRU Exiles programme, first launched in 1990, where players aged 13 and over register online and then attend three to four events a year and work their way through the age groups. Nick Tompkins and Will Rowlands both graduated from that program.

At the time of writing this article, of the 228 players called up during the Six Nations, 72 are dual-qualified. That number drops to 63 if you filter out players eligible to play for countries that have not been to a Rugby World Cup: England’s Maro Itoje, Beno Obano and Nick Isiekwe (Nigeria), France’s Cameron Woki (Democratic Republic Congo), Gael Fickou (Senegal) and Dany Priso (Cameroon), the Irish Josh van der Flier (Netherlands) and the Italian Alessandro Izekor (Nigeria) and Marco Manfredi (Germany). Azzurri striker Sebastian Negri was born in Zimbabwe but also qualifies for South Africa and is therefore not included.

There are also seven dual-qualified players in the Six Nations squads who are uncapped. Potential England backs Oscar Beard and Tom Roebuck qualify for Wales and Scotland respectively. Exciting Toulouse forward Emmanuel Meafou, who is currently injured but will certainly play for France when fit, qualifies for Australia, New Zealand and Samoa. Ross Vintcent, one of Exeter’s breakout players who has now been called up by the Azzurri, could represent South Africa as Scotland move to sign Sale’s Arron Reed (England) and Ross McCann (England and Ireland).

Tom Roebuck - Behind the arms race for the dual-qualified rugby talentTom Roebuck - Behind the arms race for the dual-qualified rugby talent

England have left Scotland for Tom Roebuck – Getty Images/David Rogers

Receiving a call up to play Test rugby will be the greatest moments of their lives for many. When the calls for availability come from countries you would never play for – Louis Rees-Zammit was quick to reject England in 2019, for example – then the decision is simple.

But for those torn between representing multiple nations it can be a “very sensitive” situation, as described by one officer. At senior level, associations will first approach clubs about any call-ups, before players then discuss their options with their families and advisors. Those unsure of which team to represent can even make themselves available to be drafted, but then withdraw if selected.

Fate, as seen with Redpath, also plays a role. If Feyi-Waboso, after achieving three A*s, had been admitted to study medicine at Cardiff University, instead of going first to Wasps and then to Exeter, where he is now studying medicine completes university while playing for Chiefs, likely to do so at Twickenham in the red of Wales on Saturday.

Those are the big decisions the next wave of future stars will face. Henry Pollock, the English back row talent, qualifies for Scotland. Kepueli Tuipulotu, the England under-18s hooker, was born in Pontypool and his sister, Sisilia, plays for Wales. Wilhelm de Klerk is one of Ireland’s best U20 players and was born in South Africa. The fight for every union to win over these players has only just begun.

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