Jason Taumalolo can’t play Origin. It really is that simple. But it’s not because he plays for Tonga.
The North Queensland enforcer changed not only the island nation’s fortunes by declaring he would represent them instead of New Zealand at the 2017 World Cup, but the entire international rugby league landscape.
As a result of his defection, the likes of Andrew Fifita, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, David Fusitu’a, Solomone Kata, Tevita Pangai Junior, Addin Fonua-Blake and Tuimoala Lolohea also pledged their allegiance to Tonga, the knock-on effect being that players of Samoan, Fijian and other island nation heritage are choosing to represent these Tier 2 nations instead of Australia or New Zealand.
It’s a great thing that has happened and it looks likely to continue as long as players who represent these Tier 2 and 3 nations are allowed to also play Origin.
Which they are.
With the suggestion that the Pacific Test be moved from Origin period to the end of the year, players who have decided to represent Tonga, Samoa or Fiji could also play for their state.
And that’s just fine by me. Watching the video footage Andrew Fifita posted of his grandfather weeping after Fifita told the older man of his decision to represent Tonga showed exactly how much it meant.
Meanwhile, Fifita was “shattered and gutted” that he had to miss the Indigenous All Stars match this season due to injury because he’s proud of his Indigenous heritage too, as evidenced by his five caps for the side.
We’re a big, beautiful melting pot of a nation and it’s entirely feasible for someone to be Tongan, Aboriginal and a New South Welshman, and have a desire to represent all three.
But here’s what you can’t do: represent Australia and New Zealand.
That’s not my rule, it’s right there on page two of the International Rugby League’s rules of eligibility: “A Player can only ever elect to represent one (1) Tier One Nation. A Player cannot change eligibility from one Tier One Nation to another Tier One Nation.”
And, just so we’re clear, “’Tier One Nation’ means Australia, England or New Zealand”.
It’s a smart rule.
We want players from Tier 2 and Tier 3 to represent these smaller countries so that they stop being regarded as lower tiers. Hopefully in 15 or 20 years, we’ll be at a stage of development that means the likes of Tongan, Samoa and Fiji are regarded as Tier 1.
Until we get there however, having a bit of flexibility in eligibility is a good thing.
But New Zealand does not need this particular leg up. They may not be as consistently good as the Kangaroos but they are very much in the upper echelon, both in regards to the talent they have available and the expectations of their performances.
And, as evidenced by the fact he was born and bred in Auckland, as well as the ten games he played in the famous black jersey, Taumalolo is a New Zealander.
If Jason Taumalolo had only ever represented Tonga, he may have been able to also play for Queensland (although whether he lived in the Sunshine State prior to his 13th birthday is seemingly up for debate – the Tele says he did, but in an interview from last year, Taumalolo says he came over at the age of 13).
But the Dally M winner made the decision in 2014 to represent the nation of his birth, which was long after the loophole that Tonie Carroll exploited to play for both countries had been closed.
In short, Taumalolo knew what the ramifications were when he first played for New Zealand: he was ineligible for Origin.
He still made the decision.
Now he wants to play and the justification for allowing him seems to be ‘because Jason Taumalolo is sick at footy’.
I intimated in last week’s column that I’m getting kind of sick of Peter V’landys’ laissez faire attitude to rules – whether that be by simply creating new ones on the field or choosing to ignore player welfare ones off it – but I do accept that sometimes you need to be, as the chairman calls it, “flexible”.
Well when it comes to representative football, we are already more than flexible enough.
People can play for Tier 2 or 3 nations and still get a start in State of Origin.
But if you decide to play for New Zealand or England, you’re out of the Origin conversation.
And Jason Taumalolo just deciding he’d like to play a game for Queensland is not reason enough to cheapen international rugby league.