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Time to strengthen the Pacific
An agreement by NRL clubs slipped under nearly everyone?s radar last week. During their regular CEO meeting, NRL clubs agreed, among other things, that they would allow contracted players to be released to compete in various World Cup qualifying tournaments at the end of the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
This was a uniquely selfless move by the clubs and is undoubtedly welcomed by the ?minnow? nations of Rugby League. Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands will meet in Sydney at the end of this season with the top two advancing to the World Cup in 2008, while two qualifiers will come from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Lebanon, Russia and Georgia when they meet this October. The Atlantic Cup made up of the USA, Japan, South Africa and the West Indies will also be played as a World Cup qualifier this year.
These countries, and in particular the Pacific nations, will be buoyed by the NRL clubs decision. There are many players who are willing to represent their nation in these tournaments, but would be unwilling to compete against the wished of their employers.
Which raises another issue, now the Pacific players have been given permission to represent the nation of their choice, will they gain access to their best possible squads? As the NRL has gained an increased amount of Polynesian and Melanesian players, it has exposed the talents of a new generation of islanders. Suddenly nations such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji (who all competed commendably in the 2000 World Cup) can potentially have access to some of the games brightest prospects. International Rugby League may be on the verge of gaining a few more competitive nations ensuring the international game can survive beyond the dominance of Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
However one more challenge faces the code: convincing the Islander players to sacrifice the prestige of State of Origin and Tri-Nations representation to play for less glamorous nations.
Jarryd Hayne, Mr Popularity at the moment, has Fijian heritage and has recently held discussions with Fijian scout Shane Morris about representing the island nation. Fuifui Moimoi is of Tongan extraction and is a regular visitor of his former home. While Ashton Sims also has Fijian heritage, albeit to a lesser degree. These players, combined with players that have already represented Pacific Nations (such as Tonga?s Antonio Kaufusi and Samoa?s Hutch Maiava) would ensure a competitive and lively qualifying tournament and World Cup. Imagine a Hayne vs Grothe battle, or Moimoi taking on Ryles.
However players such as Hayne have already been sounded out by New Zealand and Australia national selectors and coaches. The Kiwis and Kangaroos play regular internationals against the highest quality opposition in front of huge crowds and the world media. Playing for Australia usually means playing in State of Origin series with simular crowds and exposure. This is compared to Pacific nation games such as last year when Tonga played Samoa at Campbelltown Stadium in front of a small crowd.
So for someone like Hayne, choosing Australia or New Zealand over Fiji may be an easy decision, which is worrying for international Rugby League. Many players who have Islander heritage also tend to have New Zealand and Australia heritage. This means the Kiwis and Kangaroos can choose the premier Islander players and leave the scraps for the Pacific teams. Players of islander heritage that have subsequently represented Australia include Willie Mason, Petero Civoniceva and John Hopoate. This policy does nothing for the prestige of tournaments such as the World Cup.
A solution is to provide the Pacific nations with regular, high profile fixtures. One scenario involves allowing the highest ranking Pacific nation into the Tri-Nations. This, along with including the highest ranking European nation (most likely France) would provide Pacific players with inspiration to not only play for their nation, but to also play to the best of their abilities.
In the meantime a bunch of Islander players need to make some unfairly tough decisions in the next few months. We can only hope, for the good of international Rugby League, they choose the road less travelled.