In 1989, Kyran Bracken arrived at Bristol University to study law. He was born in Ireland, schooled in England and had played for England Schoolboys. Soon after his arrival, Kyran, whose parents are Irish, was approached by the Irish RFU about playing for Ireland Under 21s and declaring himself as Irish.
He was pestered for quite a long time. His parents told me that they were happy to trust me to advise what was best. He came into my office and I said, ‘Close your eyes and imagine that you are running out at Lansdowne Road wearing green, then do the same, only imagining that you are wearing a white shirt at Twickenham. Which of these appeals to your emotions and excites you?’ He immediately said that it was the latter. This made it clear to me, and from then on, he said he was English and wanted to play for England given the chance. He went on to play 51 times with the red rose on his white shirt.
This leads me to the world of professional sport today. Jofra Archer is terrorising the Australia’s batsmen, playing for England. He has an English father. However, he was born in Barbados and had never lived in England until the age of 21. Apparently, he had always wished to play for England, despite having played for West Indies Under 19s. This may be genuine, but we all know that money talks and Jofra will earn much more playing for England. When the domestic eligibility rules were changed from seven years to three he became eligible four years earlier than planned. In the meantime, cricket in the West indies is suffering, and missing a genuine talent. I would like to ask Jofra, ‘Do you feel English?’.
There are far worse examples. Kevin Petersen came to England because he couldn’t get in the South Africa cricket squad, and also because of money. He went on to become one of England’s best-ever cricketers. Does he feel English? Last year, Brad Shields, a New Zealander with English grandparents, signed for Wasps. Before he had even been to England he was called to South Africa (apparently when he was on his way to the UK from New Zealand) and played in a Test against the Springboks. These are much clearer examples of someone coming to play in the UK with no feeling of nationality or loyalty other than to the country left behind.
I can understand it when Scotland, with far fewer players, seek to recruit, within the law, from around the world. But England? Surely we can develop enough top-class players when we have the largest number of home grown professional rugby and cricket players in the world. It ’s time we identified and developed enough of our own talent so as not to need the products of other systems. Sadly, it is unlikely to happen unless the eligibility rules are changed back and make it more difficult for mercenaries to wear the English rose on their shirts.
Bob is a director of the charity Foundation For Leadership Through Sport. He was Director of Sport, Exercise and Health at Bristol University and President of the RFU for the 2013-14 season, having been a member of the RFU Council for 20 years.