As the top two teams in the world rugby rankings get ready to face off this weekend, New Zealand assistant coach Ian Foster this week said this about Kiwi-born Irish centre Bundee Aki: “He looks like an Irishman now, doesn’t he?”
It’s true that Aki doesn’t look like, say, Jonathan Sexton or Robbie Henshaw, but his looks alone should not disqualify him from being considered Irish. Rugby rules on eligibility revolve around birthplace but also heritage and, most controversially, residency. So if those are the rules, Aki qualifies to play for Ireland as he has lived there long enough.
Pot calling kettle All Black
Joe Schmidt correctly responded by saying that New Zealand fields players who were born in other countries too. Men such as Jerome Kaino (American Samoa), Chris Masoe (Samoa) and Joe Rokocoko (Fiji) were All Blacks who gave their all when playing for their adopted nation, and were indeed considered Kiwis.
Schmidt could also have cited a couple of players Aki will face tomorrow: Ofa Tu’ungafasi, who was born in Tonga, and Nepo Laulala, born in Samoa; as well as current squad member Waisake Naholo, who was born in Fiji.
Foster’s mistake was to mention the visual – that Aki doesn’t look Irish.
What does that mean? It is possible that people can look nothing like the majority of the population of the country they migrated to.
Don’t go there, essentially
This same offence was committed by many people in the wake of France’s win last year at the FIFA World Cup, with many mentioning that the win was an African one because many of the players were “African” in appearance. The reality is that most of the black French players in the team were born and bred in France and therefore, if you believed in the concept of the nation state, were French.
When you think about it, before the 1980s, when the browning of the All Blacks really began, Bundee Aki would not have looked much like your typical New Zealand international either.
Contests to savour in world rugby rankings
Back to the rugby and the perpetual jostling for world rugby rankings.
Another massive weekend ahead, with several monumental contests before us.
Top of the pile is of course Number 1 versus Number 2, when New Zealand are hosted by Ireland.
Acres of newsprint and gigabytes of data have been expended in previewing this match and we shall not add to it here except to say that it is not just a battle for bragging rights but also a fight for psychological supremacy before the next Rugby World Cup.
This, as we know, has been a crucial advantage prior to all past Rugby World Cups so both teams will be gagging to attain that. But tomorrow’s match is also a head to head between the current All Blacks coach and his assistant — Steve Hansen and Foster — and the man most likely to take over, in many eyes: Joe Schmidt. Their tactical duel will be intriguing.
The blockbuster matches that will also have an impact on world rugby rankings include Scotland vs South Africa and France vs Argentina. Recent Scottish form suggests an upset would not be that big a surprise.
France vs Argentina is a fixture that usually produces a lot of blood and thunder, and this one should prove no different. Both teams have come off tight losses, especially the French who lost to the Springboks in the last play of the match. So redemption will be the key word.
Bigger scorelines expected
Two other defeated teams from last week, England and Australia, both in very tight affairs and high in world rugby rankings, will take out their frustrations this weekend against opponents they should be able to beat in any circumstances.
Eddie Jones will pit his England team against Japan, his previous team. He has jokingly said that he wants them smashed. It may not happen physically, but it should happen on the scoreboard.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, despite having a soft spot for Italy (where he had began his coaching career with the Petrarca club), will ensure Australia face Italy on Saturday in a harder frame of mind.
Wales, after finally beating Australia for the first time in 14 matches last week, can take it easy this week. However, the Welsh will be playing Tonga, who warmed up with a 49-38 win over the French Barbarians last weekend and can be dangerous when least expected.
Interesting Tier 2 battles
The weekend’s action begins tonight when the Welsh (club side) Dragons take on Russia. The Russians had a surprise win last week over Namibia – so another victory will hold them in good stead as they build towards the RWC 2019.
The US Eagles will be taking on hosts Romania, with a hope to build on last week’s historic 30-29 win over Samoa. This will be the first outing this November for the Romanians, whose A team defeated Kenya 36-5 two weeks ago.
There are a few other Tier 2 clashes.
For example, Namibia play Spain and will hope to bounce back from the defeat to Russia. The Uruguay vs Fiji in Hartpury, England, will provide a taste of their meeting in Pool D at RWC 2019.
Both are coming off chastening losses, with Uruguay losing 21-5 to Irish Ulster, and the Flying Fijians had their wings clipped by Scotland in a 54-17 hammering.
Another Match of the Day?
The most intriguing clash of the weekend, to me, is Georgia vs Samoa in Tbilisi. This would in any other circumstances be a heavyweight battle of power and strength and big hits. But with both also coming off defeats – Samoa to the US for the first time, and Georgia to Italy — this will have more spice than usual.
In the final two matches, the Maori All Blacks should continue their amble through South America with a win over this week’s hosts, Chile. Elsewhere in the continent, Paraguay entertain a South American XV.
Enjoy your weekend!