Tribalism and the diaspora: Rugby league’s toxic paradox

Martin Millard Roar Pro

By Martin Millard, Martin Millard is a Roar Pro

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    International rugby league eligibility rules get a little fluid around world cup time, and the pall that fluidity casts asks some very strong questions about the core motivation behind representation. Pride, loyalty, and sacrifice.

    Can a player who was passed over by his first choice nation truly offer the same level of commitment to performance, the same level of accountability to his second choice nation? These questions will possibly forever haunt a Rugby League World Cup’s search for relevance with first and second generation New Zealanders, Englishmen, and Australians littered throughout the second tier nations.

    Consider Markia Koroibete, Fijian born and raised. His inclusion in a Kangaroos squad would most certainly have been questioned by many Australian rugby league commentators, yet there are next to no misgivings with his Wallabies selection. That same level of rugby union tolerance and acceptance was of course extended for many Pacific islanders, born and bred, that achieved the pinnacle of All Blacks or Wallabies selection.

    Rugby league’s inherent tribalism is its very own toxic paradox. In order to grow the international game you need the quality and competition of international matches to be of the highest possible level. The only immediate answer to provide that level of competition is looser eligibility laws to secure extra playing quality, which unfortunately in turn has an adverse effect and dilutes the meaning of these desperately meaningful games.

    Wayne Bennett’s struggle in attempting/succeeding to drag England back to a true world cup threat is a classic example. The decline of the English Super League forced the pragmatic super coach’s hand to seek out high quality NRL players with English descent to make themselves eligible.

    He was bashed from pillar to post during his two-year English campaign for that endeavour, yet New Zealander/Queenslander/Australian/Samoan Ben Te’o debuts for the English Rugby Union with barely a whimper.

    So this innate unwritten rule of tribalism extends deep into rugby league’s roots. This year though rugby league may have been stumbled across a way to circumvent this roadblock and perhaps provide the jet fuel required to take it’s international game off of the ground.

    In an ironic twist The Pacific island nations diaspora’s brave defections have set a tone. Despite not being born and raised in Tonga/Samoa/Fiji the decision of certain players to forgo the riches on offer with tier one nations, and to represent one’s heritage is pure, and seems to resonate with the collective rugby league community. Pride, loyalty, and sacrifice.

    To watch Jason Taumololo pull on a Kiwis jersey now would look out of place. His tears spilling onto his Tongan jersey after a monumental victory over the Kiwis was arguably the image of the World Cup. There could be a strong argument made that Taumololo is a modern-day Arthur Beetson and that the international game in the Pacific just had it’s 1980 State of Origin moment.

    Jason Taumalolo Tonga Rugby League World Cup 2017

    (NRLPhotos/Scott Davis)

    Hopefully the relevant rugby league administrations respect that moment for what it is, and capitalise on the momentum that these Pacific island players have created. Somehow though Sydney myopia bubbles to the surface and already the talk is all about Sydney stadiums and scheduling. Todd Greenberg is throwing cold water on talk of more international Test matches.

    I can still see the Tongan flags waving in Hamilton, as an impartial supporter I would definitely tune into a Kiwis vs Tonga grudge match any day of the week. Striking while the iron is hot though has not historically been a strong suit with rugby league.

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    The Crowd Says (39)

    • December 11th 2017 @ 7:33am
      Not so super said | December 11th 2017 @ 7:33am | ! Report

      Firstly you contradict yourself in one paragraph by saying improving the quality by being looser is the most important – then say it makes things less genuine ??
      Taumalolo and Fifita make close to a million dollars a year in the NRL. They aren’t missing a lot in playing for Tonga
      The comparison with Beetson was spurious considering that Artie was born and raised in Qld and they weren’t
      As for expansion there is no guarantee that with the limited finances and minuscule populations of these nations that a viable international expansion can be achieved
      Especially when there is bacically no RL at the tiny home and close to zero money and infrastructure and 95% of the team was born elsewhere

      • December 11th 2017 @ 8:27am
        not so super said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:27am | ! Report

        and i left out your typical meaningless “sydney centric” comments.

      • December 11th 2017 @ 8:37am
        Martin Millard said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:37am | ! Report

        Not so super – I shouldn’t have to do this for you mate, if you don’t understand at least google it.

        paradox
        ˈparədɒks/Submit
        noun
        a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true.

        Rugby league’s inherent tribalism is its very own toxic PARADOX. In order to grow the international game you need the quality and competition of international matches to be of the highest possible level. The only immediate answer to provide that level of competition is looser eligibility laws to secure extra playing quality, which unfortunately in turn has an adverse effect and dilutes the meaning of these desperately meaningful games.

        • December 11th 2017 @ 12:35pm
          Justin Kearney said | December 11th 2017 @ 12:35pm | ! Report

          Well written martin. We didn’t expect anything else from NSS but it was nice to see you put him back in his box.

    • December 11th 2017 @ 8:15am
      Johhno said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:15am | ! Report

      Tighten eligibilty rules eg two switch policy like Jarryd Hayne as an example. He should now be aligned to Fiji for life, no more switches. 100 days notice of your intention to switch if selected by another nation, so nominate your first preference 100-days out from the official naming of world cup squads.. Unlimited switching in 2018 should be banned.

      • December 11th 2017 @ 8:24am
        not so super said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:24am | ! Report

        but he represented australia first and has only represented Fiji when he has been dropped from Australian team

        • Roar Guru

          December 11th 2017 @ 8:36am
          Sleiman Azizi said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:36am | ! Report

          So? He is eligible. Nothing else matters.

        • December 11th 2017 @ 8:45am
          Johnno said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:45am | ! Report

          Big deal not so super, Hayne or any player should not be allowed to flip flop at will it damages the credibility of the sport. He’s switched twice and now should not be able to play for Roos, and taumolo has made two switches as has Fifita they should be aligned to Tonga for life..
          Two switch policy not 3 switch or unlimited I say..

        • December 11th 2017 @ 8:14pm
          Terry Tavita said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:14pm | ! Report

          what you want him to do? wait around till he gets picked by kangaroos again?..which is highly unlikely..try putting yourself in his shoes first before splurging off..

      • Roar Guru

        December 11th 2017 @ 8:33am
        Sleiman Azizi said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:33am | ! Report

        I think the only thing that needs to be ‘tightened’ is the down time between nations. I think 100 days (just over 3 months) is a practical period of time.

        But I would like to add that there should be no limit on the number of times a player can switch provided that they are eligibile for the nation.

        • December 11th 2017 @ 8:40am
          Martin Millard said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:40am | ! Report

          I agree, I think it is a players right to choose if he wishes to and is eligible

          • December 11th 2017 @ 8:47am
            Johnno said | December 11th 2017 @ 8:47am | ! Report

            Yes, and it damages the credibility of the sport.
            Turns the game into a free for all of unlimited flip flopping..

            • December 11th 2017 @ 9:31am
              Oingo Boingo said | December 11th 2017 @ 9:31am | ! Report

              I’m with Johnno in this .
              Switch once , but that’s it .

              • December 11th 2017 @ 9:48am
                Johhno said | December 11th 2017 @ 9:48am | ! Report

                I want two switches not one. Three is to many as is unlimited.

            • Roar Guru

              December 11th 2017 @ 9:44am
              Sleiman Azizi said | December 11th 2017 @ 9:44am | ! Report

              No, it doesn’t turn the game into a free for all since very few players actually go chopping and changing ‘all the time’ anyway.

              In anycase, players switch because they are eligible. Why is that not credible?

              I agree with your proposal of a 100 day notification period. I think it is a good one. It’s a practical amount of time for coaches to select squads and prepare for their next match or tournament.

              Of course, a set international calendar would help no end here.

              • December 11th 2017 @ 9:51am
                Johhno said | December 11th 2017 @ 9:51am | ! Report

                I think two switches is good, as it means some of the guys will get developed the lesser known players, and come world cup some people will make swtiches. But it increases depth in the four year cycle as more players will get exposed if some loyalty is attained. There will still be plenty of flip-floppers come the world cup so the toruanment will still be close.
                It just to me isn’t good look unlimited switching no matter how someone promotes it.
                Im glad we are unified about 100-day notice period rule, I never want to see what happened with JT/Andrew Fifita again.

    • December 11th 2017 @ 9:39am
      Sammy said | December 11th 2017 @ 9:39am | ! Report

      As the writer said, the only immediate answer to provide a worthy standard of competition is looser eligibility laws to secure extra playing quality.

      This is the reality.

      But will we still be doing this 10 years from now ?

      • Roar Guru

        December 11th 2017 @ 9:55am
        Sleiman Azizi said | December 11th 2017 @ 9:55am | ! Report

        Provided that you have regular international events, then the down time between nation switching can increase.

    • December 11th 2017 @ 9:57am
      paul said | December 11th 2017 @ 9:57am | ! Report

      The point of this article is really simple and 100% correct. Rugby League as a whole has this stupid view that a player cannot represent the country of their choice because it doesn’t have the same broadminded approach to this issue as does Rugby Union where, by the way, the international scene is thriving.

      There are a number of comments about players moving from one national team to another affects the credibility of the game. How? I didn’t seem ANY credibility issues during the World Cup, either on or off the field.

      If a player like Taumalolo is chosen by selectors, to play for Australia, is the game lacking credibility. Is Taumalolo if he accepts the offer? Do the guys who play against him in this example, care about his “credibility” if he’s running full tilt at them?

      There are plenty of good reasons why players should be able to move around if we are to expand the game around the world The author’s right, the current situation is toxic.

      • Roar Guru

        December 11th 2017 @ 10:12am
        Sleiman Azizi said | December 11th 2017 @ 10:12am | ! Report

        There weren’t any credibility issues.

        If a player is eligible why is that not credible?

        The code would do well to stop being dictated to by the arguments of those have an agenda.

        Rugby league needs a public face that can mock the critics and give them a progressive uppercut when the cameras are on and the reporters are around.

      • December 11th 2017 @ 2:09pm
        Terry Tavita said | December 11th 2017 @ 2:09pm | ! Report

        i think the credibility issue exists only on the minds of the naysayers..never saw any credibility issue with tonga at the recent world cup..all those boys are proud tongans..

        • December 11th 2017 @ 3:51pm
          Johhno said | December 11th 2017 @ 3:51pm | ! Report

          Two switches allowed per career is not undermining a players loyalty to either a Tier-1 or Tier-2 nation. A two switch policy allowable per each players career would be more generous than like 99% of organized sports on planet earth..

    • Roar Guru

      December 11th 2017 @ 10:38am
      Nat said | December 11th 2017 @ 10:38am | ! Report

      Hi Martin, mate you’re going to bring out the RU drones again. Or those who don’t quite understand what you have written but because there is an RU comparison they must make comment. Their game is unequivocally larger on a global scale so their eligibility rules are slightly tighter and the No 1 goal of loosening eligibility rules between T1 and T2 nations in league is to provide a better quality product and who can argue with that. Tonga were the giant killers, their crowds were fantastic, yet Lebanon with a few good NRL players, took them to the 80 min mark – who saw that coming? Bennett explored his options but took very few ‘heritage’ players and they held Aust to 6 points in the final.

      So the argument is the flip-flopping. Simple solution, more international games. NZ and Aust have the depth not to demand Fifita, JT13 or TKO and if Tonga, Fiji and Samoa have more international games to build their team and legacy around, those who chose heritage over success or monetary gain in this years WC will not want to go back. Then the argument of ‘What If’ becomes null and void. Really, if money was the driver to represent your country, they’re are probably not there for the right reason.

      • December 11th 2017 @ 11:07am
        Martin Millard said | December 11th 2017 @ 11:07am | ! Report

        Hi Nat,

        I went a little easy on the RU drones in this one, even conceded a point or two to them. I think you’re right, more NZ and Pacific Island games needs to be the overall takeaway from this world cup.

        There are large numbers of Pacific Island ex-pats in NZ so it seems obvious to hold the matches there rather than Western Sydney. If you can fill stadiums for these games and get good TV ratings then the money is there to pay the players.

        Dirty ARL politics will no doubt hold up and stagnate the opportunity. Lebanon were a bolt from the blue and Fittler appears to be a large contributor to that, good omen for NSW this year?

        • Roar Guru

          December 11th 2017 @ 1:08pm
          Nat said | December 11th 2017 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

          Agreed. If they want to grow the international game then you must take the highest quality product to the source and that is NZ. Bring across more young PI boys who have only ever known RU. Success this year has gained attention but it’s a start only. Although it has to be on FTA to gain commercial benefit.

          Sry mate, I’m the wrong man to be seeking Fitler support. Qld to the core! 🙂

        • December 11th 2017 @ 1:38pm
          Fred said | December 11th 2017 @ 1:38pm | ! Report

          Martin, there are also large numbers of Pacific Islanders in Western Sydney, which is why there’ve been good crowds at the Pacific Tests when they’ve been held in Penrith and Campbelltown. It was a great atmosphere this May in Campbelltown.

          • December 11th 2017 @ 2:01pm
            Martin Millard said | December 11th 2017 @ 2:01pm | ! Report

            I believe that was also a triple header, that is alot of money to split between six teams and far more complicated. If Tonga and NZ can pack out a stadium in NZ by themselves then surely a better choice?

            • December 11th 2017 @ 9:09pm
              Fred said | December 11th 2017 @ 9:09pm | ! Report

              True it was, but the first Pacific Test in Penrith a few years back I believe was just Samoa v Tonga

      • Roar Guru

        December 11th 2017 @ 1:07pm
        Sleiman Azizi said | December 11th 2017 @ 1:07pm | ! Report

        That’s right.

        There aren’t any problems that won’t be fixed by simply playing more Test matches.

        To go even further, there isn’t a problem in the first place, other than not enough Test matches.

      • Roar Guru

        December 12th 2017 @ 9:17am
        Rellum said | December 12th 2017 @ 9:17am | ! Report

        Tonga should be a T1 nation, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t.

    • December 11th 2017 @ 12:27pm
      Ken said | December 11th 2017 @ 12:27pm | ! Report

      I don’t think the eligibility rules are too far wrong. The only real problem is players switching very late, historically after not making a T1 team or, this time around with JT & Fifita, deciding after being selected for a T1 team they would rather play for their heritage team. As long as they are eligible I don’t have a problem with switching but it was embarrassing that they could do so after the teams were due in camp.

      So for mine, bring in some sort of time requirement for nominating your current country of choice. I see 100 days is listed above that’s probably sufficient.

      From the original article though you gave an example of Koroibete. He was aligned to Fiji during his time in RL so his eligibility for Australia was never an issue. If he had nominated for the Roos though it would have been a talking point – just like it was for Radradra (who moved to Australia much later). It should be noted the majority of the sentiment during Semi’s debut was ‘good on him, but it’s too bad Fiji doesn’t have more appeal’ rather than a tribalistic ‘we don’t want him’.

      Is this truly not seen at all in RU circles though as well? I’m only a part-time follower of the cousin code but I thought there were occasional murmurs of discontent, with the All Blacks especially, vacuuming up talent from the islands. When a Fijian born player plays for the All Blacks against Fiji, surely there would have to be some mixed feelings from the crowd? Pride at their success vs resentment that they are playing for the other side.

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