Scotland is rugby’s biggest poacher

Scotland is the biggest poacher of foreign-born rugby talent.

Oft-maligned New Zealand ranks below the entire British Isles, Ireland, Italy and even Australia when it comes to the number of foreign-born players trundled out since the game went professional in 1996.

Those are the findings of Dr Hautahi Kingi, a US-based Kiwi economist and statistician who has analysed the birth places of nearly every player to have debuted since 1996 for a top 10 ranked rugby nation.

Kingi shared his findings – which debunk many of the long-held preconceptions around player ‘poaching’ in international rugby – with Newsroom.

His full analysis can be found here on his blog hautahi.com.

His findings include:

  • Of the 176 players who have debuted for Scotland since 1996, an incredible 79 (44.9 percent) were born outside of Scotland.
  • Italy (59/134) has the next highest number of foreign-born players, followed by England (44), then Ireland and Australia, tied on 43.
  • New Zealand has fielded just 29 foreign-born debutants out of a total of 196 in the professional era.
  • Argentina has capped the most debutants since 1996 (294), but still has the lowest number of foreigners (4).
  • In a rare case of South Africa being able to claim a moral high ground, the Springboks have fielded just 10 foreign debutants out of 210 over the period analysed.

Kingi’s analysis also debunks the myth that New Zealand is a rapacious plunderer of Pacific Island talent.

New Zealand does in fact field more Pacific Island-born players than any other top 10 nation (excluding the Pacific Nations themselves, obviously).

Since 1996, just three nations - New Zealand (21), Australia (13) and England (4) - have debuted more than two players born in either Samoa, Tonga or Fiji. But comparing those numbers with Pacific population bases in each country tells a different story, as Dr Kingi explains.

“2.8 percent of the New Zealand population were born in the Pacific Islands, compared to just 0.5 percent in Australia and less than 0.1 percent in England,” Kingi notes. “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 four times more Pacific born players than would be expected given the population, Australia has 16 times more, and England a whopping 162 times more.”

Fascinatingly, Kingi’s dataset even speaks to the effectiveness of foreign-born players (as points scorers, at least) versus native players.

Overall, foreigners score more tries than their native counterparts. The foreign-born All Blacks, for example, average 6.1 tries per player while New Zealand native All Blacks average 4.8. That trend holds up for seven of the 10 countries analysed. The most notable exception is England, whose foreign recruits average just 1.5 tries compared to the 3.1 tries of home-grown players. England’s foreigners also don’t tend to last, with the foreigners playing just 13.8 matches each on average compared to 21.4 matches for native players. That ratio is by far and away the lowest of the data set. In Wales, for example, foreigners actually play more matches (24.2) than Welsh-born players (23.3).

Those figures appear to raise the question as to the effectiveness of England’s foreign recruitment.

One finding that won’t shock anyone is that New Zealand is confirmed as the largest exporter of international rugby talent.

Kingi uncovered 227 New Zealanders who have played for another country since 1996. The next largest exporter is England with 95 players. Samoa, Tonga and Fiji have together contributed 63 players to top 10 nations.

“Notable absences include Scotland, Ireland and Wales, which have provided fewer than seven players each to other countries, despite having had the services of 162 foreign-born players combined,” Kingi notes.

When it comes to international rugby, as the below graph demonstrates, New Zealand is very much a giver rather than a taker.

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