It’s sad that Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – one of rugby league’s best players and a Dally M recipient – feels the need to switch careers to fulfill his homeland potential, but it is hardly surprising.
In New Zealand, rugby union is king, with the All Blacks being a global brand.
This is not to catastrophise. It’s not so much from an existential concern that I write, but disappointment in the failure to reach full potential.
What needs to change to stop future Tuivasa-Shecks from departing? What can take the game to the next level?
The fact that there are high-profile Kiwi players in Australia cloaks the difficulty in players making the grade. It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest having the whole country as your development farm puts you at a disadvantage, but having a national player pool without the means of refining that talent is as useless as the sovereign man in the desert.
The fact that so many of the current international crop left before adulthood is striking.
Below the NRL, there is little opportunity for players that are not first-grade ready to continue improving. Due to restrictions, the Warriors cannot put forward a team in the NSW Cup, instead relying on a feeder partnership with Redcliffe in Queensland.
It’s easier said than done, but to rectify the situation and improve the pathway, and indeed the popularity of the game, the NZRL domestic competition needs to raise its standard to near the second-tier level.
Providing these pathways would not only make it more appealing (by virtue of being less burdensome by relocation) to would-be players, but should produce more first-grade players. That boosts both the Warriors and the international arena.
The Warriors have built such goodwill from the Australian game that a small token of gratitude and long-term sustainability may be in order. We’re not talking magnitudes of millions, just treating the development side of the game in New Zealand the same way that NRL HQ talks about the country – perhaps re-imagining some of the pathways created by the Storm in Queensland.
In lieu of the long-term ambition of NRL expansion, power brokers need to garner national interest in the one professional side at their disposal.
They could take more games on the road: create big-event type occasions in Wellington, Christchurch, Rotorua, and so on. Plus, scarcity breeding demand should inflate Auckland attendances.
For greater national exposure, even if it’s at the expense of some Sky Sport money, broadcast a few Warriors games on national free-to-air TV (the remunerative thank you I was referring to earlier from Australia applies here).
Finally, chattering heads seriously need an attitude reboot when strangely and somewhat offensively describing the game as just played by Polynesians. I hate to engage in such petty identity politics, but without the efforts of Indigenous, Māori and Pacific Islander players, the game would be in a far more perilous situation throughout Australia and New Zealand.
The 40 per cent playing pool drawn from this demographic, as well as the shifting allegiances at international level, can act as a catalyst to expand the game on an international competition level, providing top-quality representative footy outside of Origin for a wide subsection of society. It breaks the monotony of the Tri-Nations, has a unique selling point in international sport and provides a challenge for the Kiwis in maintaining the mantle of top dogs.
It is as naïve to think rugby league can match rugby union’s popularity in New Zealand as it is for me to imagine they’ll accept my critical worker visa application. But the perfect should not be the enemy of good.
There is room to improve and make the decision for future Tuivasa-Shecks more difficult, and generate a pathway to create more interest in the game.