With the 2021 State of Origin series all but wrapped up, the chatter has already turned to which players will wear the coveted Australian Kangaroos jersey at the end of the season.
Like in all years previous, there are the usual discussion points. Who deserves the No. 7 jumper? Will the winning Origin team make up most of the Kangaroos 17? These topics generate your usual state-based parochialism, and nearly every answer or opinion will depend on which side of the Tweed you live.
A much more important debate, however, is now being had over the capacity for some players to not only play but thrive in the Origin arena before ‘turning their back’ on the green and gold to instead playing for the nation of their heritage. Specifically this applies to Jarome Luai, Brian To’o and to a lesser extent Josh Papalii.
All three of these players are proud Samoans, and each has expressed a desire to represent Toa Samoa on the international stage.
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga has already spoken on the matter, declaring that while he accepts Papalii’s decision – as he has earnt the right to choose who he wants to play for after a long and distinguished representative career – he wants Luai to pledge his allegiance to Australia.
One would think after witnessing To’o’s heroics for New South Wales that the same would apply for the Panthers pocket rocket as well.
First things first: this is completely understandable sentiment from Meninga. He can talk all he wants about wanting to ensure the fabric of Origin is maintained and that all Origin players must therefore be eligible and available for Australia, but the bottom line is that he is employed to win football games as coach of the Kangaroos.
As such a key stakeholder in the game, however, not only being coach of the Kangaroos but also holding roles in club land with the Titans and in the media – not to mention the fact he is an Immortal – Meninga should be looking at the bigger picture.
For years international rugby league was nothing more than a gimmick. It was Australia by how much provided there was no stunning upset by New Zealand. England (or Great Britain) ceased being genuinely competitive in the 1990s.
That all changed in 2017 when Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita chose to represent Tonga over New Zealand and Australia respectively in that year’s World Cup. A marker was set, and soon a number of big name players, including Manu Ma’u, Tevita Pangai Junior, Michael Jennings and David Fusitua, followed.
The rise of Tonga as a genuine international force culminated in the the biggest upset in international history, a 16-12 win over the Kangaroos in front of a sea of red in Auckland.
It was also no accident, as these days a large number of the game’s participants at both junior and senior level are Polynesian.
While Tonga will continue to push on as an international force despite some of their big names not having the same star power they did in years gone by, in 2021 it is Samoa who are looking the most likely.
Key to their success, however, is the availability of the three aforementioned State of Origin stars and particularly Jarome Luai.
If there was one area that Tonga continued to fall short in, even during their surge between 2017 and 2019, it was the halves. In Jarome Luai, however, Samoa will possess one of the game’s most devastating playmakers at the peak of their powers.
Sure, it might not sit well with some people that Luai plays for New South Wales and then Samoa, but as per current eligibility rules he can do just that. He was born and raised in Mt Druitt, Sydney, and has Samoan heritage. Open and shut.
And before people raise the argument of Jason Taumalolo being ruled ineligible for Queensland this year, he had the option earlier in his career to play for the Maroons but chose New Zealand instead. As per the rules, he is not eligible for State of Origin. Open and shut.
So given Luai, To’o and Papalii are all eligible for Samoa and want to play for Samoa, they should do just that.
The Kangaroos have the depth of talent to go without them.
No Luai? No worries – play Cameron Munster at No. 6.
No To’o? No worries, play Valentine Holmes or Dane Gagai on the wing. Josh Addo-Carr will dominate on the other flank.
Where there may be a worry for the Kangaroos is if Junior Paulo, Payne Haas and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui follow the lead of these trailblazers and also choose Samoa over Australia. That will leave the Kangaroos front row stocks light on but by no means exposed. You’ve still got Daniel Saifiti, who only last week expressly stated his desire to play for Australia, Jake Trbojevic, Christian Welch, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Jai Arrow and Dale Finucane, each of whom can do more than just a job up front.
Given this depth, players with Polynesian heritage who possess a genuine desire to represent that heritage on the international stage should be encouraged to do so. There will always be enough young players who yearn to play for the Kangaroos to keep them competitive long into the future.
It shouldn’t be up to Meninga to try and convince an established superstar like Jarome Luai to renege on his desire to represent his heritage. That decision should be left entirely to the individual and should be influenced only by personal values and beliefs. While Meninga is by no means doing anything wrong by trying to tempt Luai into wearing the green and gold, his energy would be better served focusing on the players who genuinely want to wear that jersey.
Another argument that is sometimes bandied about on social media and possibly other places is that it is somehow disrespectful for Australian-born players to want to wear the jersey of a Tonga, Samoa or Fiji. This is not true in any circumstance. If we’re fair dinkum about growing the international game, those jerseys should be worth just as much as the green and gold.
The better the international game gets, the more lucrative it becomes. Imagine a World Cup semi-final between Tonga and Samoa – while it might not generate as much interest in the northern hemisphere, you can almost guarantee it would sell out Suncorp Stadium or Eden Park and potentially even set TV records for international rugby league.
We need to break ground on the international stage, not keep the status quo.
The Kangaroos will always be competitive, but they don’t have an inherent right to get first crack at all available talent – even those who play State of Origin.
So let’s make the international game great, not just the Kangaroos.