Israel Folau is one step closer to an extraordinary return to international rugby after new eligibility rules were passed by the game's world governing body.
World Rugby approved a major amendment to their eligibility policy on Wednesday, which will allow players to switch countries more easily from next January.
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The move looks set to pave the path for the likes of Folau, one of the Wallabies' most outstanding backs who was sacked by Rugby Australia over homophobic social media posts, to launch a second international career with Tonga.
Wallabies great Toutai Kefu is the current coach of Tonga and said last week that he had talked to Folau and the 32-year-old was keen to join the islanders' fold.
The bombshell move could prove a huge boost for developing rugby nations - particularly Pacific Island sides Tonga, Samoa and Fiji - in time for the 2023 World Cup in France.
Currently, internationals aren't eligible to play for a second nation unless they stand down from Test rugby for three years and play sevens for their second country in an Olympic qualifying event.
But under the new rules, as long as the three-year break is still met, players can switch nations from January 1 if they, or a parent or grandparent, were born in the country they now wish to represent.
Folau hasn't played international rugby since the last of his 73 Tests for the Wallabies against England at Twickenham in 2018.
After being sacked by Rugby Australia, he joined French rugby league side Catalans Dragons in the UK Super League.
After a brief stint with the Southport Tigers in a local Gold Coast league earlier this year, Folau will return to rugby in 2022 with Japanese side Shining Arcs.
Law change a huge boost for Pacific Island teams
After January 1, any player meeting the criteria can make an immediate transfer application.
In theory, the move could be a game-changer for the Pacific Islands with the amendment meaning that New Zealand luminaries like Charles Piutau, who has 17 All Blacks caps, George Moala and Vaea Fifita could play for them.
Samoa could be bolstered by former All Blacks too with former fly-half Lima Sopoaga, Steven Luatua, Julian Savea and Denny Solomona all being in the frame for a new international allegiance.
England powerhouses Billy and Mako Vunipola could end up playing for Tonga in 2024, while star centre/wing Manu Tuilagi would be able to play for Samoa down the line.
"We have listened to our membership and players and sought to update the regulation recognising the modern professional rugby environment without compromising the integrity of the international game,"said World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont.
It hasn't been easy to switch international allegiances in the past, with only a handful of players taking advantage of the Olympic loophole since it was introduced before the debut of rugby sevens at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Former Wallabies duo Lopeti Timani and Cooper Vuna became eligible for Tonga in recent years, with the former having made his debut for the 'Ikale Tahi against England earlier this month after a dozen Tests for Australia.
Israel Folau now set to appear at 2023 World Cup for Tonga under coach Toutai Kefu. Understatement to call this a game changer for PI nations https://t.co/WA1zJBgAKV
— Georgina Robinson (@geerob) November 24, 2021
Thank you @WorldRugby 😃 Eligibility switch=better late than never!
The start of a devastating backline.#Tonga #Rugby #AutumnNationsSeries Plenty of other talent ignored by coaches @J_cokanasiga @StevenLuatua
— Chris Smith Author (@ChrisScaacs) November 24, 2021
By coincidence, Israel Folau last played for the Wallabies 36 months ago *today*. Both parents from Tonga.
— Ben Coles (@bencoles_) November 24, 2021
Aish, Israel Folau has a target on his back. Especially after his shenanigans. People will forget sex scandals etc, but they never forget a combination of sex and religion! He's dug himself a "moral" hole for which he can never escape! Interesting to see how this develops.
— Murray Bunn (@dairybeach) November 24, 2021
Put it this way, Charles Piutau, Israel Folau, Vaea Fifita, Malakai Fekitoa, George Moala, and Augustine Pulu can now, following this rule change, all play for Tonga in their next test match.
This will be massive for smaller nations! https://t.co/HEoCMvlkrz
— Eoin Neylon (@eoinneylon) November 24, 2021
Tonga is going to be mad in 2023. Real maaaaad. Folau, Piutau, Laumape.
— Lewis Elmer (@LewisTux) November 24, 2021
Great news for the Pacific Island nations. Former All Black Charles Piutau and former Wallaby Israel Folau can now play for Tonga next year. pic.twitter.com/Y8JBVzhZsN
— Simon Borchardt (@SimonBorchardt) November 24, 2021
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