It doesn’t matter if Willis is Welsh, as long as he stays

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The debate over international player eligibility is long and laborious, and while the rules are changing there is still a few more years of arguments yet.

For some it is a problem that players can rock up in a country, play club rugby there for three years and then be qualified to play for the national team. All that despite having had no link to that country previously.

It’s been called ‘rugby tourism’ as players tour the world in search of a route to international rugby, with plenty of New Zealanders heading abroad when the prospect of playing for the All Blacks, while Pacific Island nations have missed out on plenty of talent as players go overseas where a better financial outlook and tier one rugby awaits.

There are others though who would argue that you can’t tell a player at what point they feel suitably qualified to play for a national team and that having any time frame on it is wrong.

Hadleigh Parkes France
Hadleigh Parkes selection has been criticised despite his impressive performances

I’d suggest the majority place themselves in the middle ground somewhere, and I plant myself firmly in the middle of this group with splinters on my backside, that if they’re good enough then pick them.

If they’re qualified but don’t have their heart fully set on representing a country they will be found out at international level, where’s there is a step up in quality but also in sheer effort that comes from playing for the nation and wearing the jersey.

Thankfully the debate is coming to an end as World Rugby change the residency rule to five years rather than three which will likely reduce the amount of time server players and allow players greater time to ‘change nationality’ in the eyes of the detractors.

However, in the meantime there will be two final arguments to be had in Wales. One will revolve around Johnny McNicholl of Scarlets, and the other is closer to home in the shape of our own Willis Halaholo.

Willis Halaholo Kings
Willis Halaholo scores for Cardiff Blues against Kings last season

Now firstly I’ll say that Willis, when he’s firing, is one of the best rugby players I’ve seen at the Arms Park. You only have to look at his single-handed destruction of Munster last week to understand why, as he played a big part in the set up of one try, assisted a second try and scored one of his own.

He’s got an unbelievable side-step on him, both when running at full-tilt and the ability to step on a six pence when close to contact, and to back that up he’s got good acceleration and at 5ft11 and 16.5st he isn’t short of some power when it’s required.

Beyond that though he has the skillset to be a well-rounded inside centre on the international stage. Halaholo has a creative side to his game, using his footwork to open gaps for players outside him. Defensively he makes big plays when we’re not in possession, while he’s also an accomplished footballer.

There are questions over consistency in performance and whether he’s strong enough defensively to play international rugby, but if you’re looking for a player who can make a line break almost at will and puts bums on seats then look no further.

Whether he’s good enough to play is to be debated another time though, he doesn’t qualify on residency until after next year’s World Cup, because in the mean time he’s got to sign a new Cardiff Blues contract.

Willis Halaholo Munster
Halaholo puts boot to ball against Munster

Now I can take or leave Team Wales generally, but what already has been forgotten and no doubt will continue to be forgotten as pundits and media outlets talk up Willis Halaholo’s chances to play for the national team is his role at Cardiff Blues.

In the two years since arriving at the Arms Park, the centre has made 45 appearances and scored 13 tries as he’s nailed down a spot in the Cardiff Blues midfield, often alongside Rey Lee-Lo with whom he has struck up a partnership that is very effective when it’s on form.

He has also become a very popular figure around the club, thanks in part to his Instagram stories catching team-mates in weirdly captivating yet inane situations, and his Twitter updates regularly keeping supporters motivated with the thought that the team in the kitchen and cooking. #LESSSGOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

At 28 he is now in the prime of his career, one that has been very relatable as he initially failed to make the grade in professional rugby, fell out of love with the game and faced personal battles before taking a second chance and went from local New Zealand rugby to Super Rugby winner in just a few years.

As part of what will become a young squad over the next few years as Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees move on from the playing staff, Halaholo’s experience will be vital alongside his performances, and will bridge the gap nicely as a number of young centres come through the ranks at Cardiff Blues.

After one more contract the likes of Garyn Smith, Harri Millard, Cam Lewis, Ben Thomas, Aled Summerhill and Owen Lane will all be ready to take on the mantle of first team centres, while as Halaholo becomes Welsh-qualified it means a non-Welsh qualified spot is freed up to bolster our forward ranks.

Owen Lane Leinster
Owen Lane could well have shifted inside in the next few seasons

So while others spend time debating over whether or not he should be considered for Team Wales, whether on some sort of moral basis or due to playing quality, I’m just happy that it means he might be staying put, especially after suggesting this last season of his contract may well be his last at the Arms Park.

Keeping hold of your best players and retaining some consistency in the squad will be key for Cardiff Blues over the next few years, and Willis Halaholo can be right at the heart of that. If he gets picked to play for Wales as well then great.

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