Tug-of-war over Pacific talent

Who will play for the islands, a hot issue

By Peter Rees

April 2013

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Holding the balance of power...Pacific players (from left) Peleti Mateo, Jarryd Hayne and Sonny Bill Williams. Just who will play for the Pacific nations is a contentious issue and a hot subject in rugby league circles right now.-- Peter Rees

Pacific players with dual eligibility hold the balance of power ahead of this year’s Rugby League World Cup.
All eyes will be on two important matches in April—the ANZAC test between Australia and New Zealand in Canberra on 19 April and a clash between two fierce rivals, Toa Samoa and Mate Ma’a Tonga in Penrith, the following day.

The Tonga versus Samoa game has been given full international status by the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF), which means all NRL clubs will have to release their players.

With the game’s biggest showpiece looming in October, that status should force the hands of many players undecided on their loyalties.

Currently under the RLIF rules, players who have represented one country in World Cup qualifiers are not permitted” to play for a different one in the World Cup tournament.

When a player with dual eligibility plays a Senior International Match for a country, he is deemed to have elected to play for that country. He may not play for another country until the end of the next World Cup tournament or the expiry of two years, whichever is earlier (this is called an election period).

After the expiry of an election period, the player may elect to play for another country if he is eligible, and so forth. But a player can only change once in each election period.

Just who will play for the Pacific nations is a contentious issue and a hot subject in rugby league circles right now. It’s not just about the money now—pride in their heritage is also influencing the choices of the players.

Traditionally, Australia and New Zealand have had first choice in the selection of players. They’ve taken the cream of the crop and left the islands nations with the scraps. But with a third of all players in the NRL of Maori and Pacific descent and a further 36 percent now playing in the Toyota U20 National Youth Competition, that talent base is now overflowing. So has the demand. Pacific players are simply just built for the game—big, strong and fast.

The five Pacific islands nations competing in the World Cup—Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga—have been busy recruiting for their respective campaigns, determined to send their best possible team to the UK.

While Australia has the depth to cope with any player loss, New Zealand officials are fearful—not surprising considering close to 80% of the Kiwi team is made up of Maori and Pacific players.

Last year, Kiwi rugby league bosses were up in arms at the increasing number of New Zealand-born players being wooed to play State of Origin—a stepping stone to representing Australia.

The lure of Origin is strong as players can earn up to AU$20,000 a game. North Queensland Cowboys player, James Tamou, who shares Cook Islands ancestry, was enticed to play for New South Wales and subsequently got selected for Australia.

Another New Zealand-born player, Josh Papalii, also turned his back on the Kiwis to make himself available for Origin selection for the Queensland Maroons. Big Bulldogs prop, Sam Kasiano, the other player caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between Australia and New Zealand spurned Origin and made his debut for the Kiwis in 2012.

New Zealand officials now fear losing even more players to the islands nations with the World Cup around the corner, particularly if Toa Samoa gets its way. Samoa Rugby League has set their sights on high profile former Kiwis internationals: Roy Asotasi (Rabbitohs), Frank Pritchard (Bulldogs) and Thomas Leuluai (Warriors) with Ben Te’o (Rabbitohs) and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Roosters) also on their radar.

However, it is the prospect of gaining the services of the game’s most marketable player that has tongues wagging. Roosters’ star recruit, Sonny Bill Williams has returned to the game where he first found fame after a successful stint in rugby union; winning a World Cup with the All Blacks and a Super Rugby title with the Chiefs. Though he played for the Kiwis before his defection to union in 2008, reports now suggest Williams wants to team up with good friend Reni Maitua (Parramatta Eels) in the Samoa team.

“If the cards—or the coconut—fall our way, we could potentially have the greatest Samoan team ever,” says former Kiwis player and current NRL Education and Welfare officer, Nigel Vagana, who is also an ambassador for Samoa Rugby League, and a member of the 2008 Toa Samoa World Cup squad that beat Tonga.

New Zealand Rugby League high performance manager Tony Kemp remains bravely defiant however, calling the reports rumour and a “smoke screen”.

“It’s World Cup year,” he says. “The Cook Islands, Tonga and Samoa want the strongest team possible. If you look through our team, we have a raft of Polynesian players so their heritage is being challenged but, as far as we are concerned, these guys want to play for New Zealand. They are currently New Zealanders.”

Similarly, Fiji has their eyes on several players with Australian connections. Parramatta Eels flyer, Jarryd Hayne, is at the top of the hit list for Fiji Bati officials.

Though he is a near certainty for Kangaroos selection, the depth of talent Australia currently has at fullback and wing means Hayne may opt for Fiji if he misses selection, which will be nothing new for him.

Hayne played for Fiji at the 2008 World Cup and was one of the stars of the tournament leading the Bati to the semis. Newcastle Knights speedster Akuila Uate is on the hit list while West Tigers and former Wallaby star Lote Tuqiri and former Kangaroos prop, Petero Civoniceva, have reportedly already confirmed their availability for Fiji.

“Fiji would love to have the services of Hayne and Uate...We want to have the two in our side if Australia drops them,” says Bati official, Jo Rabele.

Fiji plays Ireland first on 28 October in what will be a very tough group. Fiji then faces a tough test against world number one Australia in St Helens on 2 November, then a date with host team England at Hull on 9 November.

Tonga is reeling from the loss of Warriors’ utility Feleti Mateo, who was slated to lead Mate Ma’a into battle at the World Cup. Mateo has thrown in his lot for Australia to realise a goal of playing in the State of Origin. However, the huge depth of Tongan talent in the NRL will see other players step into the void. Players such as Michael Jennings (Roosters), Brent Kite (Manly), Willie Mason (Knights), Sika Manu (Panthers) and Konrad Hurrell (Warriors) will likely be named if they miss selection for the Kangaroos and Kiwis.

Tongan officials will be happy with the draw which sees Mate Ma’a pooled with minnows USA and Italy. The crucial game will be against island rivals Cook Islands, where a win should seal them a quarterfinal appearance.
Papua New Guinea is the team least affected by the loyalties of players with dual eligibility. The Kumuls are strong and experienced, especially up front with the likes of Neville Costigan and UK based captain, Paul Aiton in the pack.

However, the Kumuls are perhaps lacking the X-factor talent that Samoa, Fiji and Tonga have.

But with former Kangaroos stars Adrian Lam and Mal Meninga in the coaching team, they will be no easy beats. PNG will most likely battle it out with France and Toa Samoa for a second quarterfinal spot with the Kiwis favourites in Group B.

The Cook Islands may not have the depth Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea or Tonga have. But coach David Fairleigh is still confident they’ll be up for the task.

Fringe Kiwi players such as Alex Glenn and Ben Henry and Warriors signing Dominique Peyroux would be great assets if they were available for the Cooks.

“We’ll be competitive. I don’t think anyone expects us to win the World Cup, but certainly we want to be competitive within our pool and we think we can do that if we’ve got all our best players on the field,” he says.

There is no question Samoa, Fiji, PNG and Tonga can cause an upset or two. But the odds are still stacked heavily in favour of Australia, New Zealand or England contesting the World Cup final on 30 November.

Outside Australia’s NRL and the UK Super League and annual test fixtures between the big three, the international game remains dormant.

The RLIF appears to be protecting the interests of the big three by keeping the status quo and the islands nations quiet so that players with dual eligibility are likely to remain loyal to the big three.
However, player power is slowly but surely having a say off the field.

Need to know

2013 World Cup dates

The 2013 RLIF Rugby League World Cup runs from 26 October to 30 November in the UK.

Who plays where

Group A
Australia, England, Fiji, Ireland

Group B
New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, France, Samoa

Group C
Scotland, Tonga, Italy

Group D
Wales, USA, Cook Islands

Top three from Group A& B and Top teams from Group C & D progress to quarterfinals.

Who’s won the World Cup

  • New Zealand beat Australia 34-20 in the last World Cup final played in Brisbane in 2008. Australia has won the World Cup 9 times, Great Britain/England 3 times and NZ just once.

Pacific nations - World Cup appearances and best results

Samoa - 4th appearance – quarterfinals in 2000

Tonga - 4th appearance – two wins in 2008

Cook Islands - 3rd appearance – never won a game

Fiji - 4th appearance – semi-final in 2008

Papua New Guinea - 6th appearance – quarterfinals in 2000

  • Who will play for the Pacific nations is a contentious issue and a hot subject in rugby league circles right now

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