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

Luis Charalambous Roar Rookie

By , 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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