Off the Wall

If the federal government commits to a programme to assist Pacific Island nations by funding rugby union training programmes in countries such as Tonga and Samoa, and scholarships to study and train in Australia, then we should welcome it.

But the NRL needs to do whatever it can to see rugby league included as well.

Traditionally, the Pacific Islands, including Fiji, have been rugby strongholds, with island players regularly making the Wallabies team. And more recently rugby has made an impact in PNG, with the new Queensland Reds captain, Will Genia, coming from PNG where his father was an MP and Government Minister.

But it is in the smaller Island nations that rugby has been the national sport.

It makes sense for the federal government, as part of its South Pacific commitment, to look at how rugby, and sport generally, can assist island communities which are struggling with economic and social challenges.

Over the last decade or so, there has been a massive growth in rugby league involvement in the Pacific islands - and that has followed an upsurge in the number of Pacific Islanders playing rugby league at all levels - from junior suburban clubs to the NRL premiership.

When I last checked, over 25 per cent of registered NRL players had a Pacific Island/Maori heritage. At the junior levels in Western Sydney and South East Queensland there are clubs with many of their teams comprising a majority of Pacific Island players.

The growth in Islander player numbers has prompted officials to look at weight and not age as the factor determining eligibility.

A number of NRL players have not only used their standing to help strengthen Pacific Islander communities here, they have gone back to their countries of origin to promote the game - and most have done so with minimum or zero assistance from the ARL.

If governments want to make a real contribution to our Pacific island nations, sport is an excellent way to do so. The proposal for a $15 million five year development programme in the South Pacific should be encouraged - and while it is rugby union focussed, rugby league needs to make sure it is included as well.

And it needs to go one step further and use the growing influence rugby league has in Pacific Island communities and families in Australia to argue for rugby league to play an even greater role in addressing the social and other challenges these communities face today.

We need to fully embrace the reality that the real growth in rugby league is being experienced in outer urban areas - and it is being driven by Pacific Islander, Maori and Indigenous players.

Rugby league, or rugby union, are not the only sports Pacific islanders play - but the influence players with a Pacific Island communities have in both codes is massive, and growing!

I have long argued that rugby league has not received its fair share of government funding, especially to expand the work it does to assist communities under real social and economic stress.

In the last couple of years, funding has increased. And we have to hope it will increase even more if the federal government embraces the Crawford report into sports funding which it is due to respond to any day.

And assisting Pacific Island communities here, and in the islands themselves, needs to be a priority area.