World Rugby eligibility rule change could spark Folau return

By Tom Decent,

World Rugby eligibility rule change could spark World Rugby has announced a game-changing tweak to its eligibility laws which paves the way for Israel Folau to represent Tonga at the 2023 Rugby World Cup if he chooses.

In a huge development for Pacific Island nations, players will now be able to represent more than one country at Test level in a major change to original rules.

Previously, a player could not change allegiances unless they stood down from Test rugby for three years and took part in an Olympic sevens qualifying event.

Now World Rugby has allowed more movement between tier one and tier two nations.

To transfer from one union to another, a player must have stood down from international rugby for three years, as well as being born in the country in question, or have a parent or grandparent born there.

The news will strengthen countries such as Tonga, Fiji and Samoa, who can now call upon players who have already made their Test debuts for tier one nations.

“Approval of this landmark regulatory change is the culmination of detailed and widespread modelling and consultation across the game,” World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said. “We have listened to our membership and players and sought to update the regulation recognising the modern professional rugby environment without compromising the integrity of the international game.

“We believe that this is the fairest way to implement progressive change that puts players first while also having the potential to support a growing, increasingly competitive international men’s and women’s game.”

Foreshadowing a vote by the World Rugby Council, the Herald revealed last month that Folau, the 73-Test Wallabies fullback who was sacked by Rugby Australia, wanted to represent Tonga.

Tonga coach Toutai Kefu said he would have no hesitation picking Folau, who still has ambitions of playing international rugby.

Folau was sacked by Rugby Australia in 2019 before the World Cup later that year following a controversial social media post. He will never play for the Wallabies again.

The 32-year-old could already qualify for Tonga because he has not played international rugby in the last three year.

“We’d definitely be interested,” Kefu said earlier this month. “We’re not in a position to bypass players of Israel’s calibre. We’d welcome him with open arms.

“I’ve had conversations with him already in the last six months. I actually caught up with him just before he left to go to Japan. I explained to him where we were at in terms of what’s happening with this revisiting of this new eligibility rule. He totally understands it. I said, ‘If they overturned this straight away, you could be available for us next year’.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I’m keen to go’.”

Kefu also said the rule change would help Tonga immensely, who could call upon “six or seven” homegrown players from other countries.

“We probably stand to benefit the most out of any country, only because we have a lot of players who have played for New Zealand and Australia who are now plying their trade overseas,” he added.


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