Test rugby: Behind-the scenes of the international talent fight

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It was, according to all accounts, a quick call.

Louis Rees Zamit was not capped by Wales when his phone rang.

Eddie Jones, England coach, let the Gloucester wing know that he was interested in England by telling him “if he’d be interested”,

Rees-Zammit could have been eligible for England on residency grounds, but he declined. He had always promised he would.

Rees-Zammit, the rest of the British, Irish Lions, and all the other players in South Africa, England, Scotland and Wales, will be asking similar questions. They may not be as sure of the answer.

Test calls-ups are a one-way road. Any chance of representing another country is effectively lost once you have reached the cap.

These are difficult decisions that coaches, players, and unions have to make. This is how it feels to be at their centre.

The player

Two international coaches were impressed by Ben Vellacott, scrum-half for Gloucester in 2018, when his excellent form caught their attention.

Gregor Townsend, Scotland’s Gregor Townsend, wanted him to be part of his Six Nations team.

Eddie Jones, England’s national trainer, named Jones as a member of a larger England training team.

His decision was influenced by family, loyalty, and practicalities.

He said that his mother is Scottish and would have killed him if he had chosen any other country.

“I grew up in South-West England and played for Scotland at all the age levels, from under-17 to under-20. I loved these experiences.

“But as much I wanted to play for Scotland I had to make sure I was not without a job.

“Premiership clubs have an incentive to have England-qualified athletes and I was nearing the end of my Gloucester contract.

The union

Gareth Davies is a master of the party trick. He tells me the name of a Hertfordshire club that he used to play for and reveals three talented teenage Welsh players. He can also name my university coach from the top of his head.

These contacts and knowledge are an integral part of his job. He is the Welsh Rugby Union’s national exiles officer. His job is to let Welsh-qualified candidates outside of Wales know that there are opportunities for them in Wales, possibly at Test level.

He drives 55,000 miles a year from St Davids to see and chat with players. These are only the places he is able to drive to. He just finished a video conference with a player in Western Australia.

He explained that agents work closely with players’ representatives. “An agent will first ask new clients about international eligibility.

“But it could be parents, schoolmasters and coaches, or players themselves.” We have contacts all around the globe about players and we deal with each one.”

Davies has many counterparts in other unions who have a different vision, but he believes that Wales’s work in identifying talent as young as 13 builds trust.

“Johnny Williams, who scored a try for England in an un-Test match prior to making his international debut for Wales, came to us at the age of 14 while he lived in Berkshire.

“Louis ReesZammit, 16 years old, left south Wales and entered the Exiles program. We have been following him since then and have maintained good relationships with him and his family.

The coach

Nick Mallett, his native South Africa’s football coach, took over in 1997. The country was so rich with talent that it didn’t need to hire foreign players.

It was different with Italy in 2007. In 2007, he arrived following the retirement of Diego Dominguez, fly-half.

Mallett spread the word around the globe, as there was no obvious replacement for Dominguez. Mallett was born in Argentina.

He told BBC Sport that he didn’t attempt to persuade anyone to play for Italy. “They had to be enthusiastic and interested.

“But I informed some agents that we would love to see players who are qualified and can commit.

Craig Gower, Luke McLean, both Australian-born and bred, were raised in Italy by their grandparents, and could easily be incorporated into the team.

Mallett said, “In terms of integrating these men into the dressing area, I had a discussion with each.”

“I told them that they had to be an example in the way they train. There can’t be any suggestion that they are looking for cash.”

McLean won 89 caps in nine years. Gower quickly returned to rugby league after being offered by the London Broncos.

Mallett regrets the one that got away.

He said that Jonathan Wisniewski was still playing at Lyon. He is of Italian descent and we have tried to contact him.

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