24 Mar 2021

Pacific rugby stars call for eligibility overhaul

From Champions of the Pacific, 6:09 am on 24 March 2021

Fans would be the winner if rugby's outdated eligibility rules were given a long-awaited shake-up.

That's the message from two Pacific Island rugby stars who know a thing or two about being proud to represent their dual heritage.

Tim Nanai-Williams grew up in South Auckland dreaming of one day pulling on the All Blacks jersey. He got closer than most, turning out for the New Zealand Sevens team in 2008 and 2009.

Chiefs back Tim Nanai-Williams

Tim Nanai-Williams in action for the Chiefs in 2015. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

But the former Chiefs utility back was able to switch his international allegiance in 2015 via the "Olympic loophole", after to make himself eligible for the Manu Samoa fifteen-a-side team.

Now playing for Clermont in France, Nanai-Williams said the decision to play for Samoa was easy, but the process to make it a reality was much more difficult.

"It was a bit of an unknown thing at the time with it going to sevens, so they didn't really know the way how they were going to go about things.

"All I got told was just to play sevens and we got told one tournament would be alright and it ended up being four. It was a tough one because throughout two years I was in literally just in limbo really."

Manu Samoa wing Tim Nanai-Williams

Tim Nanai-Williams made his test debut against the All Blacks in 2015. Photo: Photosport

Players with eligibility for more than one country can switch their international allegiance by participating in Olympic qualifying events provided they have a passport for the second country and have completed a stand down period of three years.

World Rugby's rules otherwise prevent players from representing more than one country at senior level.

The son of proud Samoan parents, Nanai-Williams grew up in a traditional household and said the opportunity to represent his heritage and play at a Rugby World Cup was too good to turn down.

"It's the pinnacle of every sport really and you want to test yourself against the best," he said.

"I think just for my parents and my grandparents: those were the people I wanted to represent. They're the ones that made the effort to come over to New Zealand and give us a better life and things like that, so it was just a nice way for me to represent my roots."

Samoa fullback Tim Nanai-Williams tries to make a line-break during the first half of Scotland v Samoa, Rugby World Cup 2019 at Kobe MIsaki Stadium, Hyogo, Japan. 30th September 2019. Copyright Image: Kenji Demura / www.photosport.nz

Tim Nanai-Williams has gone on to represent Samoa in two World Cups. Photo: Photosport Ltd 2019

Nanai-Williams was fortunate to have the backing of his Super Rugby team, the Chiefs, who supported his decision to play for Samoa and released him to play on the World Sevens Series.

"I think it was (current Wallabies coach) Dave Rennie at the time and (former All Blacks coach) Wayne Smith and also Andrew Strawbridge and just sat down with them and told them the truth, that that was my plan for the next couple of years to to go to a World Cup and represent Samoa. They were really supportive with that, they were really encouraging at the same time so I was lucky in the sense where my club was really supportive."

Nanai Williams made his test debut in Manu Samoa's historic home test against the All Blacks in Apia six years ago, with his cousin Sonny-Bill Williams lining up in the opposite camp.

"When I went back it was just everything I could imagine about going back and playing for Manu Samoa. It's hard to explain - it's just one of those things where you're really proud and it made all the two years to make the decision (and) playing all those sevens more worth it, once I got there, so it just meant everything for me."

Toutai Kefu, playing for Australia in 2002.

Toutai Kefu played 60 tests for Australia. Photo: Photosport

Toutai Kefu also knows what it's like to have a connection to two countries.

The former Wallabies number eight was born in Tonga's Kolomotu'a in 1974 before moving with family to Australia the following year.  

His father Fatai and youngest brother Mafileo represented Tonga four decades apart, while another sibling, Steve Kefu, played alongside him in six tests for the Wallabies in the early 2000s.

Kefu has been involved with the 'Ikale Tahi national team since 2011 and was appointed head coach in 2016.

"Representing Tonga for my brother when he played was an opportunity to represent the family and that meant a lot to him - not only him but to myself as well. To represent 'Ikale Tahi as a coach is an opportunity to represent the family."

Tonga rugby coach Toutai Kefu.

Toutai Kefu has been coaching the 'Ikale Tahi since 2016. Photo: Supplied/Tonga Rugby Union

Since 2016, former Wallabies winger Cooper Vuna and ex sevens internationals Atieli Pakalani (Australia) and Nafi Tuitivake (New Zealand) have switched their allegiance to Tonga via the Olympic loophole.

But Kefu believed it was time World Rugby went back to the future and reinstated a simple three year stand-down period for players with a passport for more than one nation.

"I've always believed that a three year stand-down is fair but I think the extra red tape and loophole in terms of playing sevens rugby is I think probably a bit too much."

Charles Piutau played the last of his 17 tests for the All Blacks in 2015.

Charles Piutau played the last of his 17 tests for the All Blacks in 2015. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

A member of the Wallabies 1999 Rugby World Cup winning side, Kefu said his body was well and truly broken by the time he played the last of his 60 tests in green and gold.

But he said there are a number of Pacific Island players who were fit and able and wanted to give something back to their Pacific Islands heritage.

"If we're talking about homecoming players, these are players who have played for Tonga in the past, like Under 20s and maybe underage schoolboys sides. Those guys like Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau, Sitaleki Timani - those type of players they're at the end of their career and they're (hoping to be) playing for a country that they've represented before." 

Pat Lam was one of three future All Blacks to represent Samoa at the 1991 Rugby World Cup, alongside Stephen Bachop and Frank Bunce. 

The Director of Rugby at English Premiership leaders Bristol, Lam coaches a number of ex All Blacks who would love the opportunity to represent their Pacific Island heritage.

"I'm a big believer that the guys who might have played for New Zealand and are not playing anymore that they should have the opportunity to go back and help the tier two nations, particularly the Pacific Island nations," he said.

Steven Luatua is a former Samoa Under 20s player.

Steven Luatua is a former Samoa Under 20s player. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"You've just got to take Charles Piutau as an example. Steven Luatua could be a massive asset to Samoan rugby and certainly I know it's been on the agenda but it never seems to get through.

"...ultimately if you really want to grow the game you want your most experienced players who are playing in massive professional environments to come back and help."

After becoming the poster-boy for the Olympic loophole, Tim Nanai-Williams was inundated with requests from other players wanting to follow in his footsteps.

But the father of three said most players were did not receive the same support from their employers that he did.

Tim Nanai-Williams, wife Allie and their three kids Noah, Nash and Nova are all smiles after a game for Clermont.

Tim Nanai-Williams, wife Allie and their three kids Noah, Nash and Nova are all smiles after a game for Clermont. Photo: Supplied

"I had a few boys hit me up after finding out I was making the transition but I think it came back to their clubs, that was the saddest thing," he recalled.

"As much as you wanted to make the transition the clubs are paying a lot of money to keep you at your club and if you go to sevens it's a big risk - if you get injured then you're not available for the fifteens side - some if the boys I spoke to at the time it was just all about that really, just their club."

Now a veteran of 16 tests and two World Cups, Nanai-Williams said a three year stand-down would also stop the current discrimination against bigger players who aren't built for sevens.

"How are they meant to have that transition where the only rule comes in with the sevens, so the stand-down rule would be awesome so the fans would definitely win."

World Rugby Chair Sir Bill Beaumont said he would press on "immediately" with plans to review eligibility rules after being elected to a second four-year term last year.

The noises out of Dublin had been awfully quiet of late, Kefu noted, but with the next World Cup fast approaching in 2023 he lived in hope.

"World Rugby have always claimed that they're worried about integrity of the game but if you watch the Japanese team play everyone in the crowd's not really worried about where the players come from do they?

"In terms of a spectacle to world rugby I think the fans deserve to see the best players and want to see a really competitive product."

Nanai-Williams agreed. "The fans would definitely win".