The Poaching of International Rugby Players

May 15, 2017   


Rugby has faced many controversies and alleged conspiracies. Was rugby complicit in apartheid? Whatever happened to Keith Murdoch? Did Suzie the waitress really do it? One ongoing controversy concerns the extent to which international rugby teams “poach” players from other countries. Most of the heat is usually directed toward New Zealand, who are accused of being particularly predatory in their foreign recruitment.1 This debate among the international rugby public and media has largely relied on casual observations and anecdotes rather than evidence.2 In an attempt to bring some sanity to the discussion, I built a dataset of the birthplace and playing statistics of every international rugby player to have played a test match for the 10 “major” nations.3 You can explore the data and maybe help me fill out a couple missing datapoints below.

I focus below on players making their debut in the professional era (post 1996) and define a foreign player as someone who was not born in the country for which they played.4 The following table shows that, on average, 215 players debuted for each country since 1996, ranging from 176 for Scotland to 336 for Argentina.5


Player Debuts in the Professional Era (1996 - 2016)

Argentina Australia England France Ireland Italy New Zealand Scotland South Africa Wales
Native 294 136 177 235 134 134 165 100 210 153
Foreign 4 43 44 24 43 59 29 76 10 40
Total 336 179 221 261 178 194 194 176 220 193

Much of the debate assumes an increasing trend in foreign born players. The graph below presents the total number of foreign players making their debut in each year for the 10 major nations. Although there was a surge in the number of foreign players in 2016, there is otherwise no noticeable trend. There were more foreign born players in 2002 than 2015, for example, and the number has generally fluctuated around an average of 18 foreign born debutants per year, with a low of 7 in 2007 and a high of 30 in 2016.


Foreign Born Trend


The graph below shows that Scotland “poaches” the most. Since 1996, 43.2% of players making their debut were not born in Scotland. Next is Italy with 30.6%, Ireland with 24.3%, Australia with 24% and England with 20.7%. Argentina poaches the least with just 1.3% of its players born overseas, followed by South Africa with 4.5%, France with 9.3% and New Zealand with 14.9%.


Foreign Born Players


It shouldn’t be surprising that every team has foreign born players. International migration is a reality of the modern world, and many of the top rugby countries have large foreign born populations. The following graph compares the foreign born composition of each team to the general population in that country.6 The blue bars repeat the foreign born player percentages from the graph above and the red bars show the percentage of each country’s population that was foreign born. Australia has the highest proportion of its population born overseas, at 28.2%, followed by New Zealand with 23% and Ireland with 15.9%. By comparing each country’s respective blue and red bars, we see that Argentina, Australia, France, New Zealand and South Africa have rugby teams which under-represent the foreign-born population. Foreign-born players are over-represented for every other country.


Foreign Born Players vs Foreign Born Populations


The prevalence of Pacific born players in foreign teams has garnered particular interest with the rugby public and media, although just 3 of the top 10 major countries have had more than two players born in the Pacific Island nations of Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga since 1996.7 13 Wallabies, 4 English players and 21 All Blacks were born in the Pacific. However, these numbers do not tell the full story because each country has vastly different Pacific populations. 2.8% of the New Zealand population were born in the Pacific Islands, compared to just 0.5% in Australia and less than 0.1% in England.8 Pacific athletes are wonderful rugby players, and it is unsurprising that they are over-represented in all these teams. However, the extent to which they are over represented differs markedly across teams. While New Zealand has 4 times more Pacific born players than would be expected given the population, Australia has 16 times more, and England a whopping 162 times more.


Pacific Born Players vs Pacific Born Populations

The graph below shows the top 10 “suppliers” of players to the rest of the world, which includes all countries for which I have data.9 229 New Zealanders have played for another country. The next largest exporter is England with 95 players. Notable among this list are Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, which together have contributed 63 players to the international rugby community. Notable absences include Scotland, Ireland and Wales, which have provided fewer than 7 players each to other countries, despite having had the services of 159 foreign born players combined.


Exports of Foreign Players

The next graph summarises the net contribution of each country to the international rugby stock. The “trade balance” is calculated by subtracting the number of “imported” players from the number of “exported” players. A positive trade balance indicates that a country contributes more players to other countries than it “poaches”. Leading the way is New Zealand, which has provided 200 more players to other countries than it has poached. On the other side of the ledger is Scotland, which has imported 70 more players than it has exported.


The Trade Balance


The final table compares native and foreign born contributions on the field. It shows that foreign players tend to score more tries on average than their native born team mates, with the exception of foreign born players in Australia, England and Ireland. However, only Ireland, Italy and South Africa have foreign born players that score more points on average than their native-born counterparts, although these figures are skewed by foreign-born kickers such as Ronan O’Gara and Percy Montgomery. In terms of number of tests played, there is little difference.


Player Contributions

Team Points per Native Player Points per Foreign Player Tries per Native Player Tries per Foreign Player Matches per Native Player Matches per Foreign Player
Argentina 20.1 16.2 2.3 3.2 12.6 18.5
Australia 33.7 25.5 3.9 3.7 27.5 24.9
England 31.6 7.6 3.1 1.5 21.4 13.8
France 22.1 12.3 2.0 2.2 16.7 20.9
Ireland 28.0 38.1 3.4 2.7 25.3 21.3
Italy 11.1 27.9 1.4 2.1 18.2 26.6
New Zealand 41.6 30.5 4.8 6.1 24.1 22.4
Scotland 27.0 15.4 2.2 2.0 26.7 18.9
South Africa 26.7 103.1 3.1 5.0 20.6 30.9
Wales 29.7 21.4 2.6 3.8 23.3 24.2


Dataset

You can scroll and search the dataset below, which contains every player from the ten major countries who debuted after 1900. You can download the full dataset here, or you can view each of the individual team datasets at the following links (Argentina, England, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, South Africa, Japan, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Canada, USA, Italy, France). The Python and R programs that document both the data scraping and adjustments are available at the Rugby Wanderers Github Repository.