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If Kiwis and Poms are allowed to play, Origin might be about to stumble into eligibility rules that work

4th December, 2023
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4th December, 2023
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As night follows day, so discussions around eligibility follow rep footy.

Discussing who can and can’t play for NSW and Queensland is almost as popular as the actual games and ranks right up there with stadium infrastructure, the judiciary and how many clubs there should be in Sydney in the rankings of rugby league’s most tedious and overplayed topics.

Yet this last week, there was actually something of a breakthrough.

It was widely reported that the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) are considering altering the current rules to disregard international allegiances, opening the pathway for players who have represented other Tier 1 countries – namely England and New Zealand – to feature in Origin if also eligible at state level.

This is a rare outbreak of common sense as far as eligibility goes, because it closes down two of the most regular yet least informed arguments on the subject.

Firstly, it recognises that Origin is an internal Australian competition with no impact on any other rep footy, and maximises the ARLC’s ability to make their three game mini-tournament as good as possible without impinging on other nations at all.

By opening the door to those who have chosen New Zealand or England at international level, they make it more likely that dual eligible players will be able to have their rep cake and eat it, opting for Origin when Origin is on and then other nations come the end of the year.

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The only impediment would have been scheduling, but given that the Kiwis don’t likely to play a midyear Test any time soon and England can smash France with domestic players, that isn’t really an issue anymore.

Secondly, it stops dead the discussion on players from Tier 2 nations – notably Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and PNG – also playing for New South Wales or Queensland.

They’ve always been eligible, and 90% of the arguments around the ability of Jarome Luai, Brian To’o and others to turn has been rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of how the tiering works in international rugby league.

For the 700th and, hopefully final time: tiering is based on infrastructure and not how good your Men’s national team is. Samoa are never going to be Tier 1 and that’s why the system exists.

State of Origin is an internal Australian competition and, as far as the International Rugby League (IRL) is concerned, it’s alongside City vs Country, the Roses game and Jamaica’s Parish of Residence series in terms of deciding what country you can play for. It’s Australia’s problem alone.

What the changes might do – perhaps as an unintended consequence – is realign the priorities of the ARLC back in favour of the international game.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JULY 12: Cody Walker of the Blues is tackled during game three of the State of Origin series between New South Wales Blues and Queensland Maroons at Accor Stadium on July 12, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Historically, the flow chart for rep footy went something like this. If you were good in NSW, you played City-Country, under the auspices of the NSWRL, and if you were good there, you made it to State of Origin and the best from there would be picked for the Kangaroos.

The idea that one was a selection trial for the other persisted for many years, and was a foundational idea behind Origin as a concept in the late 1970s.

That has disappeared from the game now, partly because Australia has allowed (or chosen, if you’re more conspiratorial) Origin to supersede international footy, but also because the demographics of rugby league players have fundamentally shifted since the turn of the century.

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In the heyday of Origin, prior to the Super League War, you didn’t really have to think about whether players were ever going to play for someone other than Australia because there weren’t any conflicts of interest, so to speak.

Now, a huge portion of the participants are eligible for Australia and at least one other nation, and if that nation is England or New Zealand, they have to choose between the professional challenge of Origin and any desire they might have to play internationally for those nations.

If you’re Kiwis-eligible, for example, it makes pure financial sense to take the estimated $30,000 three times a year rather than the lesser amounts on offer for international footy. Now, you could have both.

The demographic change that has taken place in just two decades is astounding.

As recently as 2005, there were just two Pacific players in State of Origin: Petero Civoniceva (Fijian) and Carl Webb (of Indigenous and Maori decent).

Ironically Brad Thorn, born in New Zealand and with caps for the All Blacks, was allowed to play as he had chosen Australia in rugby league and was schooled from the age of 9 in Brisbane.

By 2007 there were six Pacific players and by 2010, there were eight, then by the time the international eligbility rules changed in 2017, over a third of State of Origin could play for another Pacific nation and, indeed, at that year’s World Cup, the likes of Andrew Fifita, Josh Papali’i, Anthony Milford and Jarryd Hayne actually did.

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Civenoceva in State of Origin 3, 2012

Queensland player Petero Civenoceva takes the ball up during State of Origin 3 (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

As of this year’s Origin, 19 on the 51 who participated in the series could or have played for a Pacific nation, a full 37% of all players and that, of course, only includes those who were eligible under the current rules.

The likes of Jason Taumalolo (raised in Townsville), Ronaldo Mulitalo (Ipswich), Briton Nikora (Gold Coast) Kieran Foran (Sydney) and Moses Leota (St Mary’s) all were all raised in Australia for long enough to be eligible but represented New Zealand at the most recent Pacific Championships and thus cannot currently play Origin.

Victor Radley, though an outside choice, could also have played for NSW but was ineligible due to his appearances for England.

One wonders how rules changes might play into the thoughts of Leeds-born Queenslander Sam Walker when choosing his rep pathway, especially as long as Nathan Cleary still exists.

The new rules will likely need a little refinement to work, but the spirit behind this change is correct.

To pass the pub test, they will have to be able to discern between the Radley/Taumalolo types – clearly from NSW and Queensland – and, for example, allowing someone like Brandon Smith, who moved to Townsville as a teenager, to turn out in Maroon.

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For New Zealand, in particular, this is a major issue as more and more of their best opt for Samoa and Tonga – thus allowing them to play Origin, if eligible – which weakens the Kiwis.

Someone like Reece Walsh, yet to feature at international level but of Maori descent, currently has his Origin ambitions clash with international options.

Reece Walsh of the Maroons is tackled during game two of the State of Origin series between the Queensland Maroons and the New South Wales Blues at Suncorp Stadium on June 21, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Reece Walsh of the Maroons is tackled during game two of the State of Origin series between the Queensland Maroons and the New South Wales Blues at Suncorp Stadium on June 21, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Kalyn Ponga, who has played 9s for Australia, is in the same boat and given the emergence of Walsh and the plethora of elite fullbacks from NSW, one suspects that Ponga might appreciate the chance to reassess his international options. The Kiwis would love to have him.

In the women’s game, superstars like Shannon Mato, Kennedy Cherrington, Sarah Togatuki and Zahara Temara could all have benefited from this rule in the past and, indeed, could do so in the future.

Perhaps it is naïve to think that changing eligibility rules will stop discussion of them around Origin time.

Indeed, the more the rules change in rugby league, the more we tend to debate them, with more and more complexities added to the argument.

On this occasion, however, it does seem to suit all parties.

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The players who are eligible for Origin and want to play it, especially those born and raised in the states, can do so without jeopardising their ability to represent their heritage and to play internationally.

Both states gain access to more players without simultaneously taking players away from nations that have smaller talent pools, while also not asking players to pick between their heritage and the place that raised them.

For the administrators, it adds more headline names  to an already stellar product and for fans, it makes rugby league’s all star game even more glittering.

Oh, and of course: it gives us all another thing to argue about. Whangārei? Wigan? They’re in Queensland, right?

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