World Rugby miss opportunity to make statement on 'project players'

Brett Gosper, Bill Beaumont, Shinzo Abe and Agustin Pichot. Dave Rogers - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Sporting bodies usually send out media releases at a strange time when they want something inconvenient to be ignored. Bad news is so often revealed at a bad time in a bid to soften the blow.

However, World Rugby appears to have decided that even good news should be released when it is most likely to be overlooked.

Such was the case with World Rugby's announcement of changes to Regulation 8 that clamp down on the ability of Test nations to poach 'project players' by extending the eligibility waiting period from three to five years.

This important development was revealed shortly before the whiz-bang announcement of the 2019 Rugby World Cup pool draw in Kyoto in Japan. Most in the media were too distracted by the froth and bubble of finding out where their country would sit in which pool to focus on World Rugby politics. Who escaped the "pool that nobody wanted" was the obsession, rather than the improvement in the pool of players.

Not only was the key announcement overshadowed by the Rugby World Cup draw, it was diluted further by the decision to delay the implementation of regulation change until December 31, 2020 -- which gives countries this year the opportunity to lure players who will still be able to qualify within the 36-month period. The timing coincides with the global calendar restructure in 2020, but the change should have been brought in far earlier. It is a good decision that has been watered down by the delay. As with so much that World Rugby does, they take one small step rather than one big stride.

Not surprisingly, many media outlets in the Southern Hemisphere -- including numerous newspapers -- ignored the regulation change, or only gave it scant coverage.

But the regulation reform is too important to be ignored, as it will have the desired effect of stopping players from flitting here and there; it will bring some renewed meaning to actually representing your country. For too long, Test teams -- especially up north -- have been able to target players from elsewhere and wait only a few years before the stars could join their new national team. Ireland and Scotland have taken advantage of this 'project player' scheme by luring South Africans C.J. Stander and W.P. Nel, while Fiji-born Nathan Hughes qualified for England last year. Also, all four wingers in last November's France-Australia Test hailed from Fiji.

Now it will involve a considerable investment, and an intense passion from a player prepared to spend 60 consecutive months in a new country to win a Test jersey. That is far more like the blood and sweat required of a Test representative.

World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot got it right when he said: "National team representation is the reward for devoting your career, your rugby life, to your nation, and these amendments will ensure that the international arena is full of players devoted to their nation, who got there on merit."

We might now also see more of these 'project players' actually knowing the words of the national anthem when it is played before the kick-off of internationals, rather than embarrassingly mouthing the words or humming it to themselves.

The updated regulation will also help to protect players in the Pacific Islands, and hopefully see more of the best Islanders playing in their national colours, rather than being lured north or across the Pacific to Australia or New Zealand.

Clearly the regulation change confused some. Under-siege Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver was originally against the change, arguing a few months ago that such an update would leave the game vulnerable to players being poached to rugby league. In this group would be Queensland Reds prop Taniela Tupou, who is known as the 'Tongan Thor'.

In recent times, Pulver has done a 180-degree switcheroo so that he now suggests "what we're trying to do is preserve the integrity of national teams".

Maybe Pulver was aware the change wasn't going to come in straight away -- which allows the Tongan Thor to be available for the Wallabies this year. And considering how the Wallabies' scrum is going lately, they need all the help they can get -- even from those who hail from a small island that once defeated Australia. Oh, how we will never forget June 30, 1973.

As importantly, the implementation of these reforms that were vigorously pushed by Pichot shows that the former Argentina halfback is now a wily rugby politician with ever-increasing authority. Australia, a weakening international power, has discovered that at SANZAAR level, where Argentina is quickly becoming a protected species and the 1991 and 1999 World Cup champions are suddenly forced to eat their own -- as the Rebels and Force will sadly testify.