What it's like to be caught up in European rugby's eligibility crisis
This year's Belgium-Spain match descended into chaos. Ollie Claxton, who unwittingly caused Belgium to be docked points, offers his take on the ensuing eligibility debacle
In the firing line: Spain players complain to the referee during the explosive clash in Belgium (AFP)
What itâs like to be caught up in European rugbyâs eligibility crisis
This year youâve probably heard about the Rugby Europe Championship â" also known as Six Nations B â" for two negative reasons.
The first is that after the Belgium v Spain game, the Spanish players launched an armada of Reformation-era proportions against the Romanian referee (Vl ad Iordachescu) they suspected of cheating to help his home country to qualify for the World Cup.
The second is that Romania, Spain and Belgium fielded ineligible players, leading to all three finishing in the bottom half of the table with negative points tallies. I was part of the Belgium squad for the tournament, and was one of the five players deemed ineligible.
A bit of context here: I am English. I play scrum-half for Old Elthamians in National One, and have played for England at schoolboy and student level.
My grandmother, however, is Belgian. She has played both hockey and tennis for Belgium, her first language is French and she has a Belgian passport. When I was completing my paperwork to qualify for the Belgian team, I was assured that I was Belgian enough to wear the jersey of âThe Black Devilsâ.
Capped and proud: Ollie Claxton played for Belgium before being ruled ineligible
So, after hastily watching YouTube videos of the national anthem to try to learn the words, I boarded a plane to a remote town in eastern Romania and played against one of the strongest Tier Two nations in the world. Belgium lost the match 62-12. Romania were a different class. Punchy and exciting, and with a pack that crushed our scrum, we never stood a chance.
I was struck, however, by the fact that the key members of the Romania team were not quite what I had been expecting of a country nestled in the heart of Eastern Europe. Jack Umaga was the Man of the Match, while Sione Fakaosilea and Kuselo Moyake also had stormers.
Whenever the Romanians called moves, one of their players had to translate the calls into English for these guys. Itâs probably no wonder that World Rugby came snooping around to check eligibility for them as well.
Standing out: Kiwi-born Jack Umaga, here in action v Germany, is a key player for Romania (Getty Images)
Fast-forward to a week later. Iâm in Brussels, preparing for what the Belgian coaches are touting as âthe biggest match in Belgiumâs historyâ against Spain. Except Iâm informed on the morning of the match that I canât play.
Spain, on the cusp of qualifying for the 2019 World Cup, had asked World Rugby and Rugby Europe to check and double-check the documentation of all of the Belgium players, to make sure that no stone went unturned in their quest to reach Japan.
One of the hookers and I were found, by a sub-clause in one of the rules referring to the births of our grandparents (unfortunately for me, my grandmother was born when her parents were out of the country), to be ineligible. Itâs a fact I find immensely iro nic since two members of the Spain team were later discovered to be ineligible themselves, leading to their own eventual points penalty.
What follows is a nail-biting game which I watch from the stands. Spain squander several key opportunities, and Belgium keep the scoreboard racking up through penalty after penalty, after penalty after penalty after penaltyâ¦
Out of control: Belgian and Spanish players confront each other after the crucial qualifier (Getty Images)
The game ends 18-10 to Belgium, and the Spanish chase the ref around the field until he is smuggled back to the changing room. Were it not for the Belgian players protecting him, the referee could have been mauled, given the sheer, uncorked anger of the Spanish after missing out on the World Cup. It was like nothing Iâve ever se en â" or ever should see â" on a rugby field.
Back in the changing rooms, celebrations were jubilant and heartfelt. This was a huge victory for Belgium â" similar to if Italy took Englandâs scalp in the Six Nations. It was incredible to be there, sharing what would no doubt be the international highlight in the careers of these Belgian players. I was gutted to have missed Belgiumâs finest hour, but I have to say how impressed I was by those who came in for the ineligible players.
Special moment: Belgium players celebrate victory â" but there were bitter recriminations to follow (Getty Images)
The aftermath of the game, however, has been painful. There has been the drawn-out process of penalising the aforementioned teams, and punishment of five Spanish players, two of whom received ban s of 36 and 43 weeks respectively. From a Belgian perspective, their greatest-ever victory will most likely be forgotten by the many, and remain a tarnished memory for the few.
Moving forward, the question that remains is how these creases can be ironed out so they donât affect the way the game progresses in Europe. First things first, Rugby Europe need to make sure they get simple things correct, such as choosing a ref whose neutrality will not be brought into question.
Secondly, in terms of the eligibility issue, itâs hard to blame Belgium, Romania and Spain. Other nations have worked within the rules â" Brad Shields, Bundee Aki and Sean Maitland are all examples of this in Tier One. Unfortunately for Belgium, they donât have the administrative resources to make sure that theyâre squeaky-clean and have ticked the right boxes. Thus they end up being portrayed as Icarus, being lineout-lifted too close to the sun.
Legal: Bundee Aki is New Zealand-born but qualified for Ireland on the residency rule (Getty Images)
Having said this, I must admit I was very pleased for the eligibility oversight, as it gifted me my international debut, which was never going to come with England.
When I eventually hang up my boots, I will proudly do so knowing that I have one rather dubious yet genuine Belgium cap to my name.
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