The Breakdown | Willis Halaholo and Wales should not be pilloried for following the rules

This week should have been one of the high points in Willis Halaholo’s career having been named in Wales’ squad to face the Barbarians in Cardiff on Saturday. Instead it is one of the lowest after the centre was ruled out for probably the rest of the season by a knee injury sustained during Cardiff Blues’ defeat by Leicester in the Challenge Cup at the Arms Park, a dismal match on a dank night.

Halaholo, like the Scarlets’ full-back Johnny McNicholl, qualifies for Wales on residency having joined the Blues in 2016 from the Hurricanes, the year McNicholl left the Crusaders for the Scarlets.

The decision of the Wales head coach, Wayne Pivac, to name the pair in his squad last week prompted dissent – despite it being a match in which caps will not be awarded – and the former Lions centre Gavin Henson tweeted: “This is so wrong.”

Henson has long argued an international team is distinct from a club side, with allegiance forged by geography rather than a contract. The residency qualification is increasing to five years from the end of next year, but an unintended consequence may be that players move from the southern hemisphere to Europe earlier.

Pivac succeeded Warren Gatland this month and is preparing for his first match against a side being guided by his predecessor. Like Gatland did during his Wales tenure, Pivac has to forge a winning team at a time when the country’s four regions are leaving a barely perceptible footprint in Europe, has no choice but to maximise his selection options and has already demanded more of the Welsh exiles programme.

While Henson’s indignation is understandable, Wales are doing nothing different to what they, and all the other tier one nations, have practised through the years. The game’s three-quarter system was pioneered by Cardiff in the 1880s to accommodate a recruit from Somerset, Frank Hancock, who went on to play for Wales, while the gates that were erected at the Arms Park in 1949 were in honour of another Wales and Cardiff centre who was English, Gwyn Nicholls.

Halaholo took to social media this week, unable to hide his frustration as he waited for an operation following an injury that may have ended his international career before it started. “To all the doubters, haters and people that don’t think I belong here, you got your wish,” he said. “You’ve got nine months to get better, especially the ones that think it’s OK for the other two Kiwi-born players [Gareth Anscombe and Hadleigh Parkes] to represent Wales but not me. It’s just sad to see people still live this way. This country is in my heart now, solidified, because I have two Welsh-born daughters.”

Halaholo and McNicholl, like Hancock and Nicholls all those years ago, came to Wales for work, not because they wanted to play international rugby for a country they were not born in. Halaholo started the 2016 Super Rugby final for the Hurricanes, one of 11 players who have since moved to Europe, along with the head coach, Chris Boyd. His centre partner that day, Matt Proctor, is at Northampton and the left-wing Jason Woodward joined Gloucester from Bristol and has been considered by the England head coach, Eddie Jones, who wasted no time in capping the back-rower Brad Shields.

McNicholl was on the bench for the Crusaders in the 2014 Super Rugby final. Sitting alongside him was Willi Heinz, who was capped by England this year and was part of their World Cup squad, much to the disgust of one of the players he leapfrogged, Danny Care, who said: “I was pushed out by someone from another country. It really hurts.”

Willi Heinz passes from a ruck during the England v New Zealand Rugby World Cup semi-final.

Willi Heinz passes from a ruck during the England v New Zealand Rugby World Cup semi-final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

There was only one tier one nation in this year’s World Cup that had a squad made up of players who were all born in the country, Argentina. The winners, South Africa, had one, Tendai Mtawarira, who was born and brought up in Zimbabwe. Scotland led the way with 14, followed by Australia (12), Wales and Italy (8), England and France (6), Ireland (5) and New Zealand (4).

Seven players born in Fiji were playing for other countries, fewer than England’s 14 and New Zealand’s 13. Half the tier one countries were coached by a non-national, a figure that will rise to six with the New Zealander Dave Rennie taking over from Michael Cheika as Australia’s head coach.

There are two ways for a player to be capped by a country he or she was not born in: through the birth of a parent or grandparent, or through residency. The rule has allowed many players from the Pacific Islands to be capped elsewhere and some have multiple choices: the Vunipola brothers play for England having qualified through their parents for Tonga, but Mako was born in New Zealand and Billy in Australia.

The residency rule is rising to five years after a campaign by World Rugby’s vice-chairman, Agustín Pichot. “I think it is very important to keep the identity of our national teams,” he said. “When I see people not singing the national anthem, it confuses me a little bit. I do not think players representing a country they have not lived in for long is right.”

He has a point and, with tier two nations having no prospect of access to major championships, their players’ earning potential will continue to be enhanced by moving up. However in a month when much has been said about the consequences of breaking rules, as Saracens were found to have done over the Premiership’s salary cap, should Halaholo be pilloried for observing them?

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