A handful of Irish and Scottish internationals – including a British and Irish Lion – have reportedly been drawn into Spain’s appeal against their exclusion from next year’s World Cup.
Irish fullbacks James Lowe and Bundee Aki, Scottish prop Pierre Schoeman and Tongan scrum-half Folau Fakatava have all been cited as examples of inconsistency in World Rugby’s eligibility rules.
Spain qualified for their first World Cup since 1999 after finishing second in the European Rugby Championship. However, they were disqualified from next year’s tournament in France for fielding South Africa-born Gavin van den Berg in two matches.
Van den Berg’s passport was found to have been tampered with without his knowledge by his club, Alcobendas, who were relegated out of the Spanish top flight and fined €30,000. Spain have been hit with a 10 point deduction and a €25,000 fine after Van den Berg was found guilty of leaving the country for more than two months in 2019, meaning that he has not completed the 36 months of permanent residency required to play for Spain.
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However, according to the Telegraph, the Spanish appeal will focus on Directive 15 in Van den Berg’s initial hearing verdict. There it was stated by the Judiciary Committee that “must be able to demonstrate the country in which [a player] resided was, genuinely, the country which the player considered his domicile and is clearly the country in which the player has his principal and permanent residence”.
During the hearing, Van den Berg was asked how long he had considered Spain his “permanent primary residence”. However, despite playing there for three years, he said he only felt at home in the country for two years.
As such, the committee noted that it was not until early 2020 that it considered Spain as its permanent home. An Instagram post in which he referred to himself as “Saffa” was also deemed “significant”.
Although falsifying a copy of an ineligible player’s passport is the obvious major fault committed, Van den Berg reportedly spent more than two months outside Spain in 2019 when he was due to spend 36 months residing in Spain to becoming eligible, the subjective nature of players regarding a country as their “permanent home” is clearly a point of contention for Spain. Although it should be noted that alone is unlikely to overturn the result.
However, that subjective nature is where quoting other players, such as Lowe, Aki, and Schoeman, comes in. All of them have previously expressed opinions about their nationalities or residency rules.
Nine-cap stalwart Schoeman admitted it was “difficult to be away from home” during his “first year” in Scotland against the Scot earlier this month. Aki, who won 37 caps for Ireland and toured South Africa with the Lions last year, has previously said “I’m wrong to say I’m Irish”.
“Actually, I don’t know [who I’ll play for]“, Aki told The Times in 2016.
“I don’t think in terms of countries… Yes, my ambition is still to play international rugby. When the time comes, when the time is right for me, the coaches and the international team will come, I hope.”
Lowe, who won 12 caps for Ireland, told The42 in 2019 he found it “bizarre that [he] could be Irish, right?” calling World Rugby’s eligibility laws “stupid” and “strange”.
Tonga-born Fakatava, who was cleared to play for New Zealand after a glitch in the regulations, told Stuff earlier this year: “It would be nice to have a chance to [playing for New Zealand].
“I’m just going to keep doing what I do and learn from the best [Aaron Smith], and if the opportunities arise I will seize them. Otherwise, I will have to play for Tonga.”
The Telegraph reports that all of these quotes were included in Spain’s appeal as testimonials.
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