Foreign Flavours: Problems with imports in our national teams

Overseas imports. The hot topic on many of the lips of people involved in their respective sports today. Beneficial or not beneficial? Fair or unfair? The debate seems almost endless as numerous sports recruit those born overseas to pull on the colours of our proud nation. Whether it’s through the recent discovery of a long-lost English grandmother, or qualification through the residency rule, more and more people are finding ways of meeting the requirements to compete for England selection.

Rugby Union seems an apt place to start, given the disappointing Quarter Final exit at the hands of the French. Martin Johnson was not averse to allowing non-English players to jump aboard the sweet chariot but was it advantageous? Starting with the positives, one giant Samoan born centre seems to fill that slot immediately. Not many would argue against the fact Manu Tuilagi was England’s best player throughout the tournament, punching holes through defences that other team members could never have managed, whilst flicking deft offloads worthy of his South-Sea Island heritage. Manu proudly sports his Samoan tribal band tattoo around his arm, and in fairness his selection is not the most contentious, given he has played all his junior rugby in England since the age of 8, rising through the youth ranks with all the rest. Other Johnson picks didn’t quite hit the heady standards set by Manu, fellow centres Shontayne Hape and Riki Flutey, both English by residency, crashed and burned. Flutey failed to even make the World Cup squad after a shocking run of form, whilst Hape featured once, admittedly scoring two tries against the Georgians but ultimately being overlooked for the Quarter Final, where Johnson elected for Toby Flood, a fly half, to replace injured centre Mike Tindall. Selections like these raise the question, are they not holding back English-born players who have worked their damn hardest to realize dreams of playing for their country. I’m sure centres like Leicester’s Anthony Allan, or Wasps’ Dominic Waldouck would have provided a similar sort of impact whilst giving the side a more English feel altogether. The choice that created the greatest degree of controversy however, was the late replacement flown out to New Zealand, Thomas Waldrom. As English as the Empire State Building or Gruyère cheese, Thomas the Tank mysteriously discovered an English gran that meant his fine early season form for club team Leicester propelled him above other English choices who had worked so hard to get themselves in contention. See Luke Narroway, Gloucester’s dynamic Number 8, who voiced his discontent when overlooked for the World Cup Squad rather loudly on Twitter, with a sharp barb directed at Martin Johnson: ‘Good luck to Thomas the tank and his English Nan @not-bitter much.’ The thing about Rugby Union is England have quality academies setups, they have the talent in the youth setups, see the U20’s side who reached the Junior World Cup Final last year, so why the need to block their development into seasoned internationals with an import who’s not good enough for his own national team?

Then there’s Cricket. The sport throwing a spanner into the works for those opposed to the selection of non-English players. The success the England side has enjoyed over the last two years has been well publicised, 20-20 World Champions, back-to-back Ashes wins, not to mention becoming the number one test side in the world. But have these achievements been tarred by the obvious factor that half the side isn’t even English? Two key cogs in the well oiled run machine that is England’s top order, Trott and Pieterson both qualified for England through residency laws, Craig Kieswetter, another South African, blasted the side to 20-20 success, Prior, Dernbach, and even captain fantastic Strauss were all born outside the UK, and big-hitting Eoin Morgan has even played against England in the past! Crazy. Ok, so the England side has finally hit the big time, giving the Barmy Army, such loyal supporters for so many years something to cheer about, but will people look back twenty years down the line and say, well at the end of the day, it’s a form of cheating. The long-term future of the side also has to be questioned; do these players hinder the development of young English talent? Surprisingly, at the moment, the answer would have to be no, the recent ODI series against India and the two 20-20 internationals against the West Indies featured a side bristling with young talent, who were English citizens to boot. Players like Jonny Bairstow, Alex Hales and Scott Borthwick were given opportunities to impress at the highest level and didn’t disappoint either. The County Championship does have a cap of two overseas players to a squad, and perhaps these talents are helping improve the youngsters of the game, by providing experienced advice of the highest quality that can only be valuable to learn from. On this evidence, it is no wonder other sports are copying the cricket model in an attempt to reap the same rewards enjoying those playing England’s most traditional sport.

So in which direction should the other sports go? Can the successes of the cricketers be replicated, or will the experiment go all Frankenstein like the Rugby Union example. The import question has often been raised in football, our national sport, where international triumph would be joyous to so much of our population. Let’s be honest, if any national team needed a helping hand, the Three Lions could do with it most of all. Performances at international tournaments have been dismal and there is seemingly no solution. The Premiership is stuffed with overseas stars, far too many in fact, an issue the F.A needs to address before the academy products of all the clubs see their accession to the first team blocked by some overpaid, overrated foreigner. But given there are so many cases of these players, could any of them slot into the national team? Frankly, no. The vast majority come to the Premiership as seasoned internationals, and therefore those not involved with their own country aren’t good enough for ours. Just two names have sprung up in recent years. Firstly, when England suffered their annual goalkeeping crisis, Arsenal’s Manual Almunia popped onto the scene, offering a rather dodgy, but still viable option. Fortunately, he was ignored, and this decision has proved a good one, as Manual dropped clanger after clanger on his way out of the Arsenal first team. The second harboured much louder support for national selection, Mikel Arteta. When Gerrard and Lampard donned the England shirt together, they resembled passengers of the Titanic, all lost at sea. In desperate need of a creative midfielder, Everton’s silky Spaniard Arteta qualified on residency grounds and would have made a difference to the side, but the decision was taken to stick with the English boys. A moral choice, but was it wise? Maybe if England began to harvest the foreign talent currently festering in their divisions, we’d stand a chance in the next World Cup.

Certainly national Rugby League coach Steve McNamara has taken that approach, if you can’t beat them, select them. As England are currently so far behind the Aussies and the Kiwis, it would take a minor miracle to overcome them in this year’s 4 Nations. So Steve has opted to bring a foreign flavour into his line-up, selecting Australian based players Jack Reed, Gareth Widdop and Chris Heighington in his squad. Whilst Widdop and Reed are English by birth, Heighington most certainly isn’t, and Kiwi Rangi Chase has also been picked after qualifying on residency, a call that has attracted criticism from all quarters. It is easy to understand McNamara’s motives, the Australian NRL competition is light-years ahead of our own Super League and he is trying to incorporate some of that quality to make England competitive. Whether it will be successful, it remains to be seen. Exploring some of the more successful English sports, there are no foreign qualified players to be found. English, and on a wider scale, British golfers have enjoyed a couple of sensational years, including Rider Cup victories, not to mention two English players hitting the Number One World Ranking spot, in Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. Although success in a major eludes these two, the Northern Irish have picked up three! England have also seen a number of boxing World Champions, Amir Khan, Carl Froch and previously David Haye leading the way in propelling boxing into the national limelight. And the Olympic sports, cycling, rowing and swimming, the ones often ignored when not in the global limelight of every 4 years, provide the bulk of gold medals for Great Britain on the greatest sporting stage, never mind their World Championship achievements that go largely unnoticed.

Do these sports rely on stars who qualify on residency grounds? Or discover an English relative conveniently before a major tournament. Not a chance. They put in the groundwork at the grassroots level, training with passion and commitment throughout their careers and then find the way to international glory open, not blocked by someone who has lived here for just three years. Now such sporting success cannot be compared with football, cricket or rugby as the amount of people who compete in these fields are vastly higher but perhaps it offers a clue to those so-called bigger, more popular sports that investment and trust needs to be placed at grassroots level, in developing the English youngsters and nurturing them through to international recognition instead of grabbing a quick fix of foreign. And let’s be honest, if it wasn’t for the success of the cricket team, would the question of whether it was beneficial even exist at all?

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