If Denny Solomona’s declaration that he is available for England has not come as a surprise, nor unfortunately has the admission that he has already braced himself for the inevitable criticism that will come his way. Putting aside his controversial switch from rugby league for a moment, the first thing to say about Solomona is that he is entirely within his rights to seek international recognition with England. He has completed the required three-year residency period and, as confirmed by his club Sale on Wednesday, the necessary paperwork.
Critics will point to two things. One, that the required period of residency is not long enough – hardly Solomona’s fault – and two, that his change of heart is financially motivated. Only last September he was quoted as saying: “My heart’s not here, it’s not for England,” when asked if he would consider playing league for England, where the financial incentives pale in comparison to the £22,000 a match members of Eddie Jones’s side receive.
But then who can blame him? Rugby players have short careers. Recently announced changes to the global calendar will effectively mean 11-month seasons for those who play internationals and it was desperate though not at all surprising to learn the squads of both Racing 92 and Stade Français were largely in the dark over the now doomed merger. Players are always the last to know.
Nor would Solomona – who told the Times: “I’ve bought a house here, I’m engaged to marry an English girl, I’m well and truly inside the English culture now” – be the first to play for England having qualified on residency rules, with Nathan Hughes the most recent example. And the second thing to say about the 23-year-old wing is that, with 10 tries in his first 11 matches for Sale, he has the potential to shine on the international union stage.
Among the biggest dangers of the residency rule – or selecting “project players” – is that it creates a glass ceiling for domestically nurtured talent, and it is particularly concerning when there is no great difference in ability. That is why Hughes’s case is an interesting one. A fine player for Wasps, he did not find life quite as easy during the Six Nations, in part because of unfair if inevitable comparisons with Billy Vunipola, who was born in Sydney, spent part of his childhood in Wales before representing England and who is living proof of how complex nationality can be.
But is Hughes’s selection for England an impediment to someone such as Jack Clifford, who captained England U20s to their first ever Junior World Cup, having developed through the domestic system? Or does Hughes’s presence in the England squad only encourage Clifford to better himself?
Solomona’s form since switching to union warrants further examination but it is poignant that his declaration for England came only a few days after Chris Ashton, having scored two tries for Saracens against Bath, was tipped for the Lions squad. It is unlikely, though not inconceivable, both wingers will be selected by Warren Gatland but it is also worth noting that both Ashton and Christian Wade – another who scored two tries on Sunday – have been largely ignored by Jones. Scoring tries does not guarantee selection and while the expectation is that Solomona will now be part of England’s summer tour to Argentina, Jones is yet to publicly state his views on the New Zealand-born wing.
So perhaps Semesa Rokoduguni is a more apt comparison. There is nothing to suggest any wrongdoing when he was first awarded a cap in 2014 but he was subsequently injured, disappeared out of the picture and was as a result unable to represent Fiji – against England – at the 2015 World Cup.
Rokoduguni is a particularly relevant example because Solomona has Samoan heritage – indeed that is for whom his one international league appearance came – and the strongest argument in favour of extending the residency period to five years is to help arrest the mass talent drain from the Pacific Islands.
The RFU is taking the lead in pushing for five years, lobbying for support before the World Rugby council meeting in May, but how can it square doing that with a willingness to pick Solomona? The RFU is clear when it says it will adhere to the rules until they change but as the chief executive of the union with the deepest pockets and richest playing resources, it is naive of Ian Ritchie if he does not expect accusations of hypocrisy.
Solomona’s acrimonious move from Castleford – who are still seeking compensation from Sale – may leave a bitter taste and while the Sharks may have to pay the Super League club a hefty sum, Solomona signed a three-year contract in December and they will not be short of big money offers.
It now seems incumbent on Jones to assess Solomona’s credentials at closer quarters and while the RFU may not be breaking any rules in allowing him to do so, hiding behind legislation in the meantime is not a good look for the union. Castleford supporters may say he deserves it but it is Solomona who is further exposed as a result.