Getting the rules right for international rugby league

Mark Campbell Roar Pro

By , Mark Campbell is a Roar Pro

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    On Friday the 27th of October the Rugby League World Cup kicks off.

    It starts with the traditional rivals of Australia playing England to a full house in Melbourne. The whole tournament should be epic. Yet, instead of building for such a significant event, rugby league once again seems mired in controversy – and it is of its own doing.

    The eligibility rules around rugby league are not ideal. I won’t say a farce, simply because rugby league rules concerning eligibility are similar to most major sports in the world.

    However, the rules do allow those who do not like rugby league to criticise it and make fun of its small international following.

    So, let’s be real. The sport of rugby league is not a global game. However, very few team sports are. The one truly global sport is soccer. Though, try as I might, I feel no connection to the round ball game. It just does not get my blood pumping as rugby league does. In fact, no sport does. Despite its small reach, rugby league is making progress.

    All the countries competing in the World Cup have a domestic league of some standing. This requirement has not always been the case, so when you hear commentators belittling our game saying the countries competing do not have a competition, you can tell them they are wrong.

    More players than ever before have real connections to the country they are representing. These connections show that the international game is getting more respect from within the game than it has previously, although, more can be achieved.

    The issue of Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita switching countries at the last minute is a bad look. This cannot be denied. Again, our sports give the naysayers a free hit. Though, one can wonder why there is no such outcry when the shoe is on the other foot. Felise Kaufusi is going to play for Australia despite playing for Tonga twice before. There seems to be no drama with this.

    Andrew-Fifita-Australia-Rugby-League-Kangaroos-Anzac-Test-2017

    (NRL Photos/Grant Trouville)

    The current rules allow players to switch allegiances. According to the 2017 rugby league World Cup rules, dual eligible players can nominate one Tier 1 nation (Australia, New Zealand, and England) and one Tier 2 / 3 nation in which they are eligible for before an international tournament.

    So what Fifita, Taumalolo and Kaufusi have done is within the rules. Cooper Cronk was right when he described Fifita’s timing as poor, but I would state that the guidelines set by the game allowed this to happen and as a result the rules are poor.

    So, how can the game tighten the rules to remove criticism from inside and outside the game? The answer is simple. Make the representative game the pinnacle and afford it the respect it deserves.

    The National Rugby League (NRL) although not responsible for the international game should take a much stronger leadership position. Mal Meninga is on full-time pay from the NRL, the players for Australia and New Zealand get twenty thousand dollars a Test match during the year and possibly over fifty thousand dollars if they win the tournament.

    They get thirty thousand dollars for Origin. Playing for other nations such as Tonga might result in three thousand for the 2017 World Cup. This pay disparity is killing the growth of the game. Under the current rules Australia and New Zealand just cherry pick the best players.

    The NRL should subsidise the pay for the coaches of Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and other Pacific island nations that play the game. The players of all these countries should also earn the same amount as you would if selected for Australia or New Zealand.

    I know what you are saying: “You’re crazy, the game cannot afford that.” I agree the game cannot afford to pay the coaches the same as Meninga or the players the same as what Australia, New Zealand or Origin players currently get, but I do believe that the payments should be equalised. If this means that players get less for Origin or less for Australia and New Zealand then so be it.

    This modified payment system would not suffice on its own. The next rule I propose would set us aside from most sports and put us more in line with soccer. Once a player represents a country, they can no longer switch. Maybe I’m old school; maybe it’s because I’m from a family with a single cultural link and maybe I just don’t get wanting to play for more than one country.

    I do think, money can be a big driver. Would Semi Radradra have played for Australia, if Fiji played just as often and got the same amount of money? I don’t think so. I know Fifita and Taumalolo have turned their back on the money, but they shouldn’t have to. One thing this rule would do and do well is bring back instant respect for the game regarding its eligibility criteria.

    David Collier, the CEO of International rugby league, has come out and defended the eligibility rules around the game. What else was he supposed to do, allow the game to be criticised without any defence?

    Another issue I want to highlight that has been overlooked heading into this World Cup is the withdrawing of players from team selections. Did anyone else realise that Anthony Milford isn’t turning out for Samoa? I know Wayne Bennett said he wasn’t fit to play for Samoa, but he was fit enough to continue playing for Brisbane until they were defeated in the semi-finals.

    Does anyone see the conflict here? Wayne Bennett is the England coach, Samoa is a rival at the World Cup. Wayne is putting the interest of Brisbane before the international game. The current rules allow him to do this.

    Anthony Milford Queensland Maroons State of Origin NRL Rugby League 2017 tall

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    The rules should require that all players that get selected for international duty or train on squads leading up to a tour or tournament need to be examined by that international team’s doctor before being excused from international duty.

    Further to this, failure to comply with this rule by either the player or club, then that player should have a two-game ban for every international game missed. In the case of Milford, if he had been deemed unfit by the doctor then that is fine. However, if the Samoan team doctor cleared Milford to play then he should be playing.

    If Brisbane refused, under this proposal Milford would be suspended from club duties for the beginning of next season. Therefore, if by chance Samoa made the final – six games – then he would miss 12 games for Brisbane. I’m sure under this rule Bennett, and the Broncos would not have denied Milford the chance to play for Samoa or at the very least attend the teams medical.

    I know what you are saying, if Milford doesn’t want to play then he shouldn’t have to. In a sense I agree, however, do we want players choosing where and when they play international footy.

    If a player wanted to withdraw from a match, tour or tournament for personal reasons then this would need to be approved by both the players’ national chairperson and agreed by the International Federation chairperson – currently Dave Collier. However, this dispensation would be granted only in the most special of circumstances.

    If a player were to seek retirement from representative rugby league, once approved, this player should no longer be allowed to play representative rugby league. This would make it impossible for a player to ‘come out of retirement’ in time for a major tour or tournament.

    Implementing these rules, although strict would let all fans, players, coaches and officials know the standing of the international game.

    It would most certainly stop any criticism that the representative version of the sport can receive. It would also allow fans to be talking up the action that is going to be happening on the field instead of the issues off it.

    For the tragic fan like myself, once that whistle blows, and the ball is kicked-off on October 27th, I will forget the chaos that can follow the game. I will be absorbed in the contest. Until then, I just wish the game could be its best self.