Is rugby heading down the same path as league, with Tier one international players now set to turn out for Tier two teams? And which star players could switch allegiances? Alex McLeod takes a look.
In rugby league, the idea came to fruition when stars like Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita turned their backs on representing New Zealand and Australia to play for Tonga at the recent Rugby League World Cup.
Since the Grannygate scandal that came to light in 2000 – where three players were found to be representing Scotland and Wales illegally – rugby union has maintained their strict policy of players representing just one nation.
However, with rugby sevens debuting at the Olympics last year, a clash in regulations between World Rugby and the International Olympic Committee created a loophole in the eligibility system.
This loophole allows players who have represented either their country’s top or second-tier XVs team or senior sevens team to switch allegiance to another nation, provided they have a passport for the second country and have completed a three-year international stand down.
Once the stand down is completed, players must partake in an Olympic event (which includes qualifying tournaments and the 2018/19 World Sevens Series) to make themselves eligible for their new nation at all levels.
Since the loophole was discovered and publicised in 2014, few have taken advantage of it.
Tim Nanai-Williams did.
A former New Zealand Sevens representative, Nanai-Williams played in four World Sevens Series tournaments to make himself eligible for Samoa ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Nanai-Williams has since gone on to play in 11 tests for Samoa, and now former All Blacks Ma’a Nonu and Charles Piutau plan on following his lead to play for their Pacific Island nations of heritage at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
With such high-profile players registering their interest in representing the Islands on the world stage, we highlight just some of the many key players who have represented other nations that would be eligible for Samoa, Tonga, or Fiji should they choose to exploit the regulations loophole.
Ma’a Nonu (Toulon)
One of the greatest All Blacks of all-time, the 103-test midfielder would be a prized asset for Manu Samoa with his well-crafted all-round ability.
Nonu last played for the All Blacks in the 2015 Rugby World Cup final, meaning he – at the age of 36 – would be available to partake in an Olympic event for Samoa as early as the opening leg of the 2018/19 World Sevens Series in Dubai.
Manu Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers)
Should Tuilagi decide to ditch the white of England for his nation of birth, he could form half of a formidable midfield combo with Nonu.
Renowned for his sheer power and blockbusting runs, constant injuries and suspensions have kept the 26-year-old out of England’s squads in recent international windows.
He most recently played for Eddie Jones’ side against Wales in last year’s Six Nations, which means he could turn out for Samoa’s Olympic qualification campaign midway through the 2018/19 World Sevens Series.
Victor Vito (La Rochelle)
The former All Black loose forward won Top 14 Player of the Year for his efforts during the 2016/17 campaign for La Rochelle, showing he has by no means slowed down since departing New Zealand for France.
This sort of world-class form would make the two-time World Cup winner a valuable member of Samoa’s loose forward trio.
Vito would become available at the same time as Nonu.
Digby Ioane (Panasonic Wild Knights)
Despite being best known on this side of the Tasman for getting humiliated by Jerome Kaino during the 2011 World Cup semi-final, Ioane is still a fine player with a great reputation.
The former Crusaders wing would follow in the footsteps of his father Natu if he turned out for Samoa, with the older Ioane playing one match for his homeland against the Maori All Blacks.
The 32-year-old’s last appearance for the Wallabies came against the British and Irish Lions in 2013.
As a result, he has already completed his three-year stand down, making him immediately available for Samoan selection as soon as their Olympic qualification campaign begins.
Isaia Toeava (Clermont)
One of the youngest All Blacks debutants ever, Toeava never really quite reached the potential many envisaged him to have.
Nevertheless, the Moto’otua-born utility back won himself 35 caps for the All Blacks in addition to a 2011 World Cup title before jetting off overseas five years ago.
The 31-year-old’s three-year stand down was completed in 2014, meaning he could have elected to represent Samoa in the previous Olympic qualification cycle for Rio 2016.
Toeava would be a senior figure in a Samoan World Cup squad.
Charles Piutau (Ulster)
The Bristol-bound outside back could easily be regarded as the most talented players to have come through the ranks in New Zealand rugby, only to go on to slip through the cracks and head to Northern Ireland.
Piutau departed these shores two years ago at the age of just 23 with only 17 test caps to his name, leaving onlookers to ponder what might have been if he were to have stayed and forged an international career with the All Blacks.
However, the 26-year-old has chewed through two-thirds of his three-year stand down, and could still join his older brother Siale in representing the ‘Ikale Tahi in future seasons.
If he continues the electric form that won him the Pro12 Players’ Player of the Year last season, he would surely be too irresistible of an option for Tonga to let slide by.
George Smith (Reds)
The Wallabies legend amassed a total of 111 test caps over a 13 year period, where he established himself as one of Australia’s greatest flankers.
Smith last pulled on the green and gold jersey in the final test of the 2013 British and Irish Lions series, meaning he met the stand down requirements in June last year.
A stand out for the struggling Reds in this year’s Super Rugby campaign, his defensive work ethic and ability over the ball would be warmly welcomed by Tonga.
Should he look to pursue a World Cup spot with the ‘Ikale Tahi in 2019, he would have to do so at the grand old age of 39.
Frank Halai (Pau)
An exciting wing who formerly played for the Blues, Halai became a one-cap wonder in 2013 when he made his one and only test appearance for the All Blacks against Japan in Tokyo.
He killed off his future All Blacks aspirations in 2015 when he signed a deal with the UK-based Wasps, where he continued his explosive form by scoring 12 tries in 25 matches.
Now at the Kiwi-laden Pau club in France, Halai has expressed his interest of playing for Tonga to national coach Toutai Kefu, where he would undoubtedly make an instant impact.
The 29-year-old met the three-year stand down prerequisite in November last year.
Joe Rokocoko (Racing 92)
The joint record holder for most test tries scored in a calendar year (17), Rokocoko was one of the most electrifying talents in world rugby when he burst onto the international scene in 2003.
The Nadi-born wing, who now plys his trade at Parisian glamour club Racing 92, sits second-equal on New Zealand’s all-time try-scoring list with 46 five-pointers in 68 outings.
The fleet-footed 34-year-old hasn’t let his ageing body prevent him from churning out top quality performances in France, nor should it prevent him from representing Fiji with the opportunity now available.
His three-year international stand down was wrapped up in 2013, meaning he could make an appearance for the Olympic champion Fiji sevens side as early as next year.
Rokocoko would add to the already fearsome backline Fiji acquire heading into the 2019 World Cup.