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.
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.