Rugby World Cup 2019: 'Undercover' Kiwis fronting for opposition teams

New Zealand's rugby union farm system is undisputedly the best in the world and sometimes - naturally - there are players who feel their best shot to play at the highest level is a plane ride to another country.

This year's Rugby World Cup will feature a host of such players. Some you will recognise from their playing time as youngsters in New Zealand, some as the stars of a completely different code, while others will come as a complete surprise.

We break down the players we can claim as their own, at least when the All Blacks aren't taking the field at this year's tournament.

Jayden Hayward (Italy)

Hayward is a name that should seem familiar to diehard rugby fans in New Zealand. 

In 2008, he made his domestic rugby debut for Taranaki, winning awards for the most promising and best back of the competition. The following season, he was then selected for the Highlanders, where he was the second youngest - next to Israel Dagg - on the squad. 

He went on to play four seasons of Super Rugby with both the Highlanders and Hurricanes, mainly in the midfield, but failed to make enough impact for higher honours. After two further seasons in Super Rugby, with the Western Force, he moved to Italy to play for Benetton Rugby. 

Since 2017, Hayward has made 10 appearances for the Italian national side and is now their first-choice at fullback. 

Jordan Olsen (Canada) 

Born and raised in Whangarei, Olsen qualifies for Canada through to a Canadian parent. 

Olsen has been a regular in the Northland Taniwha side for the past five seasons and scored two tries during the Blues' 2018 Brisbane Tens championship-winning campaign. 

He's yet to make his Super Rugby or international debut, but has been a regular selection as the back-up hooker for Canada over the past six months.  

Paul Lasike (USA) 

Lasike is counted among a small, but prestigious list of Kiwis who've played in the NFL. 

He grew up in Auckland, played rugby at high school, and was even selected for a national U17 training camp that included Julian Savea and Charlie Ngatai. Coming from a strict Mormon family, he embarked on a two-year mission to Alabama at age 18. 

That was when he fell in love with American football and after completing his mission, he gained a scholarship to play for Brigham Young University in Utah. His talent as a running back was initially noticed by the Arizona Cardinals, before he was signed by the Chicago Bears and played 10 games in 2016. 

Facing an uncertain future as a fringe NFL player, Lasike decided to switch codes back to rugby and now plays for Harlequins in England. 

He's made eight appearances for the USA Eagles, scoring three tries.  

Uini Atonio (France) 

This giant front-rower was the biggest forward to weigh in at the 2015 Rugby World Cup and will be hard-pressed to miss out on that honour at this year's tournament. 

Listed at 156kg and 1.97m tall, Uini (pronounced Weeny) was born in Timaru to Samoan parents and attended Wesley College in Auckland. The tighthead prop left New Zealand after one season with Counties Manukau in 2011 and signed with French club La Rochelle on the recommendation of Tana Umaga. 

He now has a French wife, his son was born on French soil and he's become a fan favourite over the course of his 32 appearances for the national side.

Tim Nanai-Williams (Samoa) 

Known in New Zealand for dynamic seasons with Counties-Manukau and the Chiefs, Nanai-Williams became a historymaker as part of his move to play for Samoa in 2015. 

Born in Auckland and playing sevens for New Zealand, Nanai-Williams became the first player to switch countries via an eligibility loophole in the sevens game.

Tim Nanai-Williams in action for Samoa
Tim Nanai-Williams in action for Samoa. Photo credit: Getty

Players wanting to switch countries just need to compete in five tournaments on the current world sevens series, which doubles as an Olympic qualifier, provided they have a passport for the second country and have completed a minimum three year stand-down period. 

The brother of Junior All Black forward Nick Williams and a cousin of Sonny Bill Williams, he has now played 11 tests for Samoa.

Dean Budd (Italy) 

Born in Whangarei, and played for Auckland, Northland and the Blues, before shifting to Europe. According to Wikipedia, the lock is known for "fancy offloads" and living with his dog named Due.

Ben Tameifuna (Tonga)

Hawke's Bay and Chiefs fan favourite, played for NZ U20s & trained with the All Blacks in 2012. The prop moved to France for club rugby in 2015 and was selected for Tonga 2017. 

Maama Vaipulu (Tonga)

Counties, then two seasons for Chiefs as loose forward.

Mako Vunipola (England)

Born in Wellington, but that’s about all the NZ connection he has, after being raised in Wales from a young age. He's a prop, the older brother of England number eight Billy (who was born in Sydney), with two uncles who played for Tonga.

Hadleigh Parkes (Wales)

Another Blues discard, who also played for the Hurricanes. Moved to Wales in 2014, where the midfielder has now played more than 100 games for Scarlets and helped the national side to this year's Six Nations Grand Slam.

Hadleigh Parkes in action for Wales
Hadleigh Parkes in action for Wales. Photo credit: Getty

Simon Berghan (Scotland)

Never quite cracked the big time in NZ, rising to Canterbury B and the Crusaders development squad, before taking up a contract with Edinburgh in 2014. The prop debuted for Scotland in 2017.

Sean Maitland (Scotland)

Cousin of fellow nation-switcher Quade Cooper, had a long career on the wing with the Crusaders and even three games for the NZ Maori, before moving to Scotland to make national side and the British & Irish Lions.

Joey Carbery (Ireland)

Raised in Dargaville, where his Irish dad represented Northland age-group sides, but moved to Ireland when 11. The first-five debuted off the bench against the All Blacks in 2016 and also featured in their victory over New Zealand last year.

Both sets of grandparents and four aunties live in Auckland.

Bundee Aki (Ireland)

Played for Counties and won a Super Rugby title with the Chiefs in 2013. His dad's name is Hercules and his real name is Fua Leiofi - just as Irish as Bundee. 

Michael Leitch (Japan)

Famous for captaining Japan in the biggest Rugby World Cup upset of all time over South Africa in 2015. Was born in Christchurch and moved to Japan aged 15.

He says he now speaks Japanese better than English. 

Michael Leitch in action for Japan against England
Michael Leitch in action for Japan against England. Photo credit: Photosport

Hendrik Tui (Japan)

Tui left New Zealand to go to university in Japan and never looked back. He grew his career through their domestic system before playing Super Rugby for the Reds and Sunwolves.

Lomano Lemeki (Japan) 

Lemeki made his profesional rugby debut as a 20-year-old for Japanese side Canon in 2009. He's stayed in Japan ever since, making his international sevens debut in 2013 and XVs debut as an outside back in 2016.

Willi Heinz (England)

One of the original 'C-City Brothers', Heinz was back-up halfback, behind All Black Andy Ellis, at the Crusdaers, before heading north to take up a contract with Gloucester.

Was invited to an England camp in 2017 and finally cracked the starting line-up during this World Cup build-up.


Join us for live updates of the 2019 Rugby World Cup from September 20

Essential Guide to 2019 Rugby World Cup

Everything you need to know about rugby and the World Cup...

The ninth Rugby World Cup kicks off on September 20 in Japan - the first time it has been hosted in Asia.