RugbyTipping Point

Is national identity becoming commodified in international sport?

Simple concept of representing your country has become endlessly complex and fuzzy. It is no longer strictly about birth place or blood ties

In November 1989 Brian Smith made his debut for Ireland against the All-Blacks in Lansdowne Road. A blonde Australian with a Wexford grandmother, Smith had played against Ireland in the 1987 World Cup, which didn’t disqualify him from swearing allegiance to another flag. The Irish coach Jimmy Davidson was scouting for an outhalf at the time, unconvinced by the native candidates.

He knew somebody who knew Smith and contact was arranged. Davidson said in an interview years later that he taped the conversation, as if it was some kind of undercover sting, and warned Smith that he didn’t want any “carpetbaggers”.

As the first player to be capped by Ireland having being capped by another country first, Smith’s recruitment was wildly divisive. Willie Anderson captained Ireland on Smith’s debut, and later wrote in his terrific autobiography that the outhalf’s “ties to Ireland were as close as mine to the Vatican”.

Smith was capped nine times over the following two seasons, but in the lead-up to the 1991 World Cup he accepted a professional contract to play rugby league in Australia, and left Ireland in the lurch. He skipped town without making any public statement to explain his reasons, adding to the Schadenfreude of all those who had condemned his selection in the first place.


Reflecting on that period in his life in an interview with Peter Bills many years later Smith said an interesting thing. “Looking back,” he said, “it was a bit unnatural.”

In the wibbly-wobbly borders of the modern game, what feels “natural” now? Before the 2020 Six Nations The Ruck website combed the squads for players who had been born outside the country they were representing. They found 50. Seventeen of them had qualified for their adopted country through World Rugby’s residency rules, 13 had qualified through a grandparent.

Shamelessly, Scotland topped the list with 16 players. Ireland had seven, which put them above England and France, and only one below Italy, past-masters of overseas recruitment, long before it became a game within a game. It is amazing how accepted all of this became.

This is not just about rugby. In the wide world of sport, what ought to be a simple concept – representing your country – has become endlessly complex and fuzzy. To a certain degree, national identity has been commodified. It is no longer strictly about birth place or blood ties; it is also about mutually convenient alliances and cultivated attachments and rule-book opportunism.

Last year, the Sambafoot website identified 27 countries around the world that had capped Brazilian-born soccer players, from outstanding players such as Pepe and Deco in Portugal, to Thiago Cionek, a journeyman who played for Poland.

In a crude sense, there was a market for Brazilian talent, and Brazil had a surplus. Fifa’s eligibility rules facilitated all of this traffic. Is the world game a better spectacle with Brazilian talent turning up all over the globe? In that case you might say the ends justify the means. As you know, there is an answer for everything.

Irish soccer grappled with this question a long time ago, though there was very little agonising. It is 50 years since Terry Mancini made his debut for Ireland in Dalymount Park, mistaking Amhrán na bhFiann for the Polish national anthem. Mancini had been born in Camden, to an Irish father, who died when he was very young; Mancini’s widowed mother married an Italian, and Mancini lost touch with his dad’s family in Dublin.

He had no idea that he was entitled to play for Ireland until Don Givens enlightened him in a QPR dressingroom one day, by which time Mancini was 31 years of age. For his first match as Ireland manager, John Giles called him up. Mancini, though, wasn’t a pathfinder in the eligibility jungle: he had been preceded into the Irish jersey by John Dempsey, a Londoner, linked to the old sod by an Irish grandmother.

At various times over the last 35 or 40 years it felt like the FAI was pimping the jersey. Some of the approaches they made to English-born players were beyond speculative. Remember Kevin Nolan? He rejected advances to play for Ireland as a teenager, and went on to captain the England under-20s. After a decade of being ignored by England’s senior managers, though, he seemed to have a change of heart about playing for Ireland. The FAI set about the paperwork until, in a mortifying twist, his Irish blood didn’t satisfy the Fifa laboratory.

On tens of other occasions, though, the FAI’s trawling for sons and grandsons of the diaspora turned up players who made a difference in the jersey. It sometimes felt like their feelings of “Irishness” had been retrofitted to suit the narrative, but the hard-core Irish football public and the bandwagon-jumpers have long made their peace with this arrangement. The over-arching issue was competitiveness. The unspoken implication was that “identity” could be acquired or learned.

With the so-called “New Irish”, though, the dynamics were materially different. When Sanita Puspure made her Olympic debut on the Irish rowing team at the London Games 11 years ago, she was also representing many thousands of people who had come to Ireland as economic migrants during the Celtic Tiger years.

Puspure had been identified as a talented athlete during her childhood in Latvia, but she hadn’t been courted by Rowing Ireland or anybody else to come here: she came with her husband to make a new life. Representing Ireland happened organically, and accidentally almost.

Alongside Puspure on the rowing team at the Toyko Games was Monika Dukarska, a Polish-born athlete who arrived in Kerry with her parents as a 16-year-old, with scarcely a word of English. In a way, it felt like she was a direct descendant of Puspure: rooted in Ireland now, and passionate about the place that had become home.

None of the “project players” who have been capped on the Irish rugby team in recent years came here as economic migrants. That wasn’t the game rugby was playing. All parties to the arrangement had made a strategic decision. How they feel about Ireland and the jersey now is a separate thing: they love it; we like that they love it.

So, does it feel more “natural” than it did when Brian Smith was around? It doesn’t feel alien. We made a deal.