Mind Games: Cosmopolitan players put ‘inter’ into international rugby

2014-11-17 10:00

One of the biggest events in Australian sport is the annual best-of-three State of Origin Rugby League matches.

Played between the Blues and the Maroons, representing New South Wales and Queensland, respectively, players represent the state for which they played their first senior league match, hence “state of origin”.

The 13-man league matches are played before sellout audiences and register some of the highest TV ratings on the Australian sporting calendar.

Given the state of international rugby union, it is a concept that could make for some interesting matchups in the 15-man game dominated by the All Blacks and the Springboks.

The march of professionalism has ensured there are more opportunities for good players to play at the top level and earn big salaries rather than relying on international call-ups.

There are few opportunities for players to break into national teams and, as has been seen in South Africa, this has led to an exodus of players deciding to “go for the bucks” rather than waiting, and perhaps being disappointed, to be capped.

The plethora of test matches between all the leading nations playing out in Britain and Europe is a case in point.

When Italy broke an extended losing streak by beating Samoa, their hero was a fly half called Kelly Haimona – a New Zealander.

Italy’s long-serving captain is Argentinian Sergio Parisse and their squad includes familiar South African surnames such as Botes and Geldenhuys.

One of Italy’s longest-serving players is Australian Luke McLean.

In beating Fiji, France presented debut Tricolore caps to former South Africans Scott Spedding and Rory Kockott. The pair joined Bernard le Roux in the squad.

Kockott was a top player for the Sharks while in South Africa – a man on the fringes of Springbok selection. Spedding and Le Roux were rugby adventurers seeking fame and fortune, denied them in their country, in a foreign land.

Ireland beat South Africa fielding a reserve hooker called Richardt Strauss, a cousin of Springbok Adriaan of the same surname, and were coached by a Kiwi, Joe Schmidt.

Former Canterbury Crusader Jared Payne did a good job replacing the legendary Brian O’Driscoll in the centre.

Former Western Province No?8 Robbie Diack is in the Irish squad.

England fielded a Fijian wing, Semesa Rokoduguni, who is doing service in the army in the UK; a former Kiwi in hooker Dylan Hartley; and a naturalised Tongan in Billy Vunipola. They are awaiting the return of Samoan Manu Tuilagi.

Scotland are coached by a Kiwi in Vern Cotter and one of their loose forwards is a young man with a Scottish name, Blair Cowan, but who hails from the Maidstone club near Wellington in New Zealand.

Wales have Toby Faletau as a key member of their line-up and the many Polynesian names in the All Black and Wallaby teams speak of legions of players who have sought a better life through rugby rather than eking out a living in the economically depressed islands they spring from.

What is clear from this is that if a marketing mandarin was to dream up a rugby union “country of birth” series, South Africa would be extremely well placed.

The only Springbok who would not qualify would be loose head prop Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira, but his place in the No?1 jersey will be easily filled.

Lions front-row forward Schalk van der Merwe has had an excellent season – many felt he was unlucky not to be taken on the current tour – and of course, Gurthrö Steenkamp is already on standby.

Most other nations would be at a greater disadvantage than South Africa but conversely, the diminishing of birthright also indicates to what extent power is shifting to professional clubs.

“Internationals”, as we know them, are in danger of becoming anachronistic.

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