Zimbabwe is one of the several lower tier rugby union playing nations which are set to reap the benefits of World Rugby’s recent decision to ease its once strict rules on international eligibility as the Southern African nation seeks to re-establish itself as a rising force in the global game.
The World Rugby Council last month voted a proposal which means a player will from January 2022 be able to represent another country after a stand-down period of three years, provided that their parents or grandparents were born in the nation they intend to switch their allegiances.
Under the current regulations, once a player has represented one country at international level, they cannot turn out for another, unless they utilise an unintended sevens loophole.
The new regulations are being widely seen as a significant shift in the game, particularly in the second-tier and third-tier countries of world rugby, who view the ruling as a major step in bridging the gap between them and the top rugby-playing nations on the planet.
Other observers have criticised the new laws which they believe will considerably lower the sense of patriotism at that level of the game.
However, for Zimbabwe, the new rules provide an opportunity for the country to make use of locally-bred players who would have represented other countries to switch allegiance to the Sables.
Aaron Jani, who represented Zimbabwe in international rugby before rising to hold the most powerful post in local rugby as an administrator believes the new regulations will benefit the country immensely by broadening the selection base for the Sables.
“The new eligibility rules that were announced by World Rugby are very positive especially for the developing countries and especially here in Africa,” the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) president told ZimSportLive in an exclusive interview.
“For us as Zimbabwe it’s very positive because we have generally been unable to tap into some of our very talented players that are dotted around the world that have represented other countries at the very highest level,” Jani told ZimSportLive.
“When they (players) reach retirement age, when they are still able to play some very competitive rugby, we haven’t had access to them. So, this new rule means that we are going to have a greater pool of players to choose from, this will introduce a new section of players that are nearing retirement but are still able to play,” he said.
Harare-born Exeter Chiefs’ 33-year-old flanker Don Armand, who earned two caps for England between 2017 and 2018 headlines a host of players who would be eligible to play for the Sables in next year’s Rugby World Cup qualifiers due to the rule changes.
Armand’s Exeter teammate Dave Ewers, who was also born in Harare could also consider a switch in allegiance to Zimbabwe after being called up to England’s 2016 Six Nations squad.
Other high-profile players who could also consider an international career with the Sables after the rule change include the England based trio of Lovejoy Chawatama, Mike Williams and Eli Snyman, South Africa-born Sharks prop Michael Kumbirai among others.
The new ruled might have however have come a little too late for the recently retired legendary duo of Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira who called time on their illustrious international careers for the Springboks and Wallabies respectively.
Jani said the law changes would make playing for Zimbabwe an attractive option for players who would have winded up their international careers for their adopted nations but still harboring ambitions
“We’ve generally seen players who go off to countries such as France, England or other countries to play after they finish their national duties in other countries. So for us as Zimbabwe that’s going to be a similar setup where we are going to have players coming through and playing for Zimbabwe just before they go to retirement because they will still be more than competitive in as far as our particular section is concerned. They will be able to impart knowledge, skills, experience to the younger players that we have in our national team so we look forward to having access to players that have represented other nations at the highest level,” he said.
He added: “I would have loved to see that stand down period reduced perhaps to one or two years but nevertheless three years is also very possible and we will look forward to using those kind of players.”
The new eligibility rules announced by World Rugby come at a time Zimbabwe are hoping to return for the Rugby World Cup for the first time since 1991.
The Sables will need to win what will be a tightly-contested African qualification tournament in France next year to clinch the sole automatic spot to the World Cup in the same country in 2023.