We must patch the Pacific-sized hole in international rugby league

Luis Charalambous Roar Rookie

By Luis Charalambous, Luis Charalambous is a Roar Rookie New author!

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    Tonga’s remarkable maiden Test win over New Zealand at the World Cup on Saturday has put a spotlight on the Pacific-sized hole that international rugby league needs to fill.

    The Tier 2 rugby league nation, whose players are only paid $500 per match, finished the first half of the tournament atop Group B after their remarkable 28-22 comeback victory, and are now firmly on the path towards meeting overall favourites Australia in the final.

    Should Tonga reach the World Cup final, regardless of whether they win or lose, it will be seen as a not only a huge win for the international game, but as an absolute masterstroke by North Queensland Cowboys forward Jason Taumalalo.

    The 24-year-old 2015 NRL Premiership winner and 2016 Dally M Medallist played in a New Zealand side that lost to Australia in the Anzac Test just six months ago.

    But in a move that took not only fans, but his New Zealand teammates by surprise, he would go on to give up one of the strongest chances of adding ‘World Cup winner’ to his growing resume by switching from the Tier 1 team to his nation of heritage, Tonga.

    Any doubts over his decision have surely eased after Tonga’s ability to fight-back from a 16-2 halftime deficit to beat a strong New Zealand outfit.

    That Taumalolo burst into tears once the full time whistle blew has lit the under the belly of fans calling for the pride and passion of the Pacific nations to be given a regular stage on the international rugby league calendar.

    Tonga tall

    (NRLPhotos/Fional Goodall)

    From Tonga and Samoa’s spine-tingling Sipi Tau and Siva Tau showdown before their match one-week ago, to the Kiwis’ Haka being met face-to-face by Tongan players while arm-in-arm this weekend, to the hymns that bellowed from the crowd each match, these clashes are elevated to must-watch events.

    Scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feed and videos of these moments attract thousands of interactions and comments – a perfect advertisement for international rugby league.

    So when is the next match in the Tonga-New Zealand rivalry?

    If the two teams don’t meet in the World Cup final, then as of right now, the next opportunity is four years from now in the 2021 World Cup. Does this mean Taumalolo would switch back to New Zealand for next year’s Anzac Test and play for them until 2021?

    If rugby league’s $10 million forward was willing to defect from New Zealand to play for Tonga in hope of winning a World Cup, then more international competition needs to be established to make that switch permanent.

    Up until Tonga’s win on Saturday, they had only played against New Zealand four times. Samoa has only played four Tests against the Kiwis. Surprisingly, the numbers are similar in rugby union. The All Blacks have played five Test matches against Tonga, and seven against Samoa.

    Likewise, in both codes, Australia hasn’t played Pacific nations other than New Zealand as often as you think.

    Why wouldn’t the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) jump at the chance to one-up rugby union and establish tournaments to fill that regional hole with quality matches within the next 10 to 15 years?

    The outrageous score lines racked up by teams like Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga against European opposition in the World Cup aren’t results that should shock rugby league fans. There is a vast gap between nations that can field NRL players and those who can’t.

    While it’s great watching your country deliver a flogging from time to time, the international arena could be enriched by higher-quality tournaments that regularly pit the Pacific nations against Tier 1 nations Australia, New Zealand and England, and against themselves.

    Michael Jennings makes a break for Tonga

    (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

    A Test series between Tonga and New Zealand writes itself, as a does a Tri Nations series with the addition of Samoa. Perhaps a Six Nations series or Pacific Cup with the inclusion of Fiji and Papua New Guinea (Papua New Guinea) could be an attainable goal in the future?

    The annual Australian rugby league calendar is stacked with 25 regular rounds of the NRL, four weeks of finals football, a representative round, three State of Origin matches, and the alternating end of year international tournaments.

    On top of that, there’s the Nines tournament and All Stars match that are set to return at some point after their 2018 hiatus.

    The RLIF’s four year calendar includes a New Zealand tour to Europe in 2018 and a Great Britain and Ireland Lions tour to the southern hemisphere in 2019, and a Kangaroos tour to Europe in 2020.

    While player burnout is always risk, this doesn’t mean the international rugby league can’t accommodate more tournaments. Why can’t one tournament run concurrently with another?

    For instance, As New Zealand tours Europe in 2018, Samoa and Tonga could be pitted against Australia in the Southern hemisphere.

    Greater international opportunity will increase payment opportunities for players, which in turn creates incentive for them to represent Tier 2 nations, and facilitates higher-quality competition.

    As we enter the back end of the World Cup, Tonga’s win over New Zealand will be looked back on as a great advertisement for Pacific Test rugby league. It would be a shame if we had to wait four years to see the next instalment.

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    The Crowd Says (12)

    • Roar Pro

      November 14th 2017 @ 8:38am
      QConners said | November 14th 2017 @ 8:38am | ! Report

      As most would, I definitely agree that there needs to be more matches played between the Tier 2 nations. I’d love to see a Pacific Cup played next year between Fiji, PNG, Samoa & Tonga to really jump on the success and interest seen from this WC. You could also have a European Cup played at the same time.

      I’d love to see a Six Nations tournament to become a big event played every 4 years in between the WC while having the seperate tours in years between both tournaments.

      • Roar Rookie

        November 23rd 2017 @ 6:14pm
        Luis Charalambous said | November 23rd 2017 @ 6:14pm | ! Report

        A European Cup played at or around the same time would be great in developing the quality of competition in the Northern Hemisphere. I think the more International rugby league, the better.

        Another factor is the coaches. We saw with Lebanon what a coach like Brad Fittler, who has improved greatly since his 2009 season with the Roosters, can do for a minnow. A trophy, whether it’s a Pacific Cup or a European Cup could be the path for more long-term coaches for these teams.

    • November 14th 2017 @ 10:13am
      not so super said | November 14th 2017 @ 10:13am | ! Report

      The real success story of the RLWC has been PNG. Majority of players are locals. 16 of the 17 Tongan players were born and bred elsewhere

      • Roar Rookie

        November 14th 2017 @ 11:50am
        Squidward said | November 14th 2017 @ 11:50am | ! Report

        In saying that for whatever reason or another there’s not apparently many PNG bred elsewhere talent that they might pick from like Tonga given the chance

    • Columnist

      November 14th 2017 @ 5:14pm
      Kris Swales said | November 14th 2017 @ 5:14pm | ! Report

      Luis, welcome aboard!

      Cracking game of footy Saturday, probably the best since the Poms-Kiwis classic at Wembley in 2013 which is still the best sporting thing I’ve seen in the flesh. Both ebbed and flowed like the best five-day cricket Tests with all results on the table until the final minute. Just superb.

      Whether or not Australian rugby league types will be happy with Origin having a showpiece to rival it elsewhere remains to be seen, but El Clasico isn’t any less important because of Argentina v Brazil so hopefully everyone can be adults about it.

      Has been a decent tournament otherwise and the quarters promise plenty of intrigue.

      Geez, Wales were bad though. And the ball handling from France and USA was worse than what you’ll see on a wet winter’s afternoon at Henson Park.

      • Roar Rookie

        November 23rd 2017 @ 6:25pm
        Luis Charalambous said | November 23rd 2017 @ 6:25pm | ! Report

        It’s certainly been an intriguing tournament. Tonga went from causing a great upset to almost being on the other end from Lebanon. And what about Fiji knocking out New Zealand? When’s the rematch?

        Tonga is taking on Samoa, and PNG are taking on Lebanon on June 23 next year, the day before the stand-alone Origin match. Maybe add Fiji v NZ to the bill. International and Origin footy co-existing on that weekend should keep everyone happy.

    • November 14th 2017 @ 6:22pm
      matth said | November 14th 2017 @ 6:22pm | ! Report

      Haven’t we have the mid year tests for the last few years with PNG, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and this year England? Shouldn’t we just continue with that and invite NZ to alternate with England every second year?

      • Roar Rookie

        November 23rd 2017 @ 7:03pm
        Luis Charalambous said | November 23rd 2017 @ 7:03pm | ! Report

        Yes, the mid year Tests have included those Pacific nations, but they’ll each play just one match. Next year’s Pacific Test day on June 23 sees Samoa v Tonga, which is great for obvious rivalry reasons, and PNG v Lebanon, which has intrigue given both their recent achievements in the World Cup. And, as you said, New Zealand might be added to the card given England played last year.

        But what about a rematch between Fiji and New Zealand after that tryless Quarter Final? When’s New Zealand’s next opportunity to get revenge on Tonga after that group match upset? PNG, who were on fire in the group stages, exited the World Cup without even facing another Pacific team, and they won’t face one on June 23.

        How can you build these rivalries if without games to play? The Pacific Test day is a great start, but one day a year shouldn’t be all that’s on offer if rugby league fans want to see quality matches within our region.

    • November 15th 2017 @ 9:56am
      Maestro said | November 15th 2017 @ 9:56am | ! Report

      The northern hemisphere would be very afraid – France are already marginalised and England is just hanging in there so the power axis would move even further south

      • Roar Rookie

        November 23rd 2017 @ 7:12pm
        Luis Charalambous said | November 23rd 2017 @ 7:12pm | ! Report

        I’ll admit, I had the blinkers on when writing this, thinking mainly about the benefit this would have to rugby league fans in the southern hemisphere.

        But as QConners suggested above, a concurrent European Cup could work, and increase the number of Test matches up there.

        The RLIF is running a World Cup for emerging nations* in 2018 for Tier 2 and Tier 3 nations, compiled of Asian and European teams, which is a positive move.

        It will naturally take longer for the northern hemisphere to catch up to the level the southern hemisphere teams are at. So in the meantime, why not showcase the southern hemisphere in a Pacific Cup? If it’s successful, and becomes a prominent showpiece, it will only prompt development in the Northern hemisphere to move even faster.

        * http://www.theroar.com.au/2017/03/30/rlif-confirms-2018-emerging-nations-world-cup/

    • November 18th 2017 @ 11:41pm
      Robbo said | November 18th 2017 @ 11:41pm | ! Report

      Tonga has a population of 107,000 – only reason players can play for Tonga and other pacific nations(Samoa/Fiji/Cook Islands) is a Grandfather or Father was born in these countries – that will evaporate in a generation or so – Samoa – population of 195k and Fiji- 900k / Cook island is only 18k- PNG is the only viable nation of any of these with a population of over 8 million- Need to get the game going in Europe/USA/Canada etc where there is large populations to make a world cup viable one has to say.

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