The importance of the Pacific Nations Test cannot be understated given player participation and contribution to the NRL. Credit: Robb Cox. Copyright: NRL Photos.
If anyone was still questioning the value of playing Pacific Nations Tests on a stand-alone rep weekend, surely the clash between Samoa and Fiji last Saturday was enough to convince them of their importance to our game.
As coach of the Samoan team I know I will be accused of bias, but I want people to understand the importance of such a game and I want you to get an insight into the passion and commitment these two teams displayed to their jerseys, countries - and most importantly, to their families.
Anyone who attended the game or watched it on TV only had to witness the pre-match ceremonies to understand what this occasion means to those that played and to the vast numbers of players and fans of our game with Pacific Island heritage.
Seeing first-hand the players preparing in camp and then playing in these types of games reinforces to me that players are honoured and motivated to play for their country and represent their families. It is refreshing to be assured that players are not just motivated by money in this era, as many would suggest.
I feel honoured to be able to have played a part in the team’s success at the World Cup last year and now to have them win this game and put them into the Four Nations. The whole group, from the players, management and families, have made me feel like a part of their family and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.
The game was a genuine Test match, with players from both teams wearing the scars of such a brutal battle after the game. Sure the game might have lacked some of the skill and finesse that top-line players such as Thurston, Slater and Smith provide for the Aussies, but it didn’t lack anything in passion and physical commitment which these players are known for.
These camps are a lot more than just playing rugby league. It’s a chance for these boys to come together and understand and celebrate their culture and heritage, which they can often lose in the demands of the win-at-all-costs attitude of the NRL. Polynesian people are very religious and extremely family-orientated, they pray and sing before meals and training and most of these guys wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of The Voice.
Polynesians make up less than one per cent of Australia’s population, yet they provide a staggering 37 per cent of players in the NRL. By that I mean they were either born, or one or both of their parents were born, in the Pacific Islands. This means they are eligible to play for Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Cook Islands and PNG - and can also be eligible to play for Australia and New Zealand.
In the Holden Cup competition this figure gets to nearly 40 per cent. In some clubs and teams throughout Western Sydney these figures are much higher again.
With such great numbers of Polynesian players playing the game now, administrators, coaches and clubs need to understand the importance of their culture to ensure they get the best of them out on the footy field.
The NRL has been working hard on this area already, with Nigel Vagana heading a program which gives all players at NRL clubs an insight into the Polynesian culture and explains some of the slight nuances which help everyone understand the importance of aspects like religion, family and heritage.
As you can see, for the development and growth of rugby league to continue it is imperative that we help the Pacific Nations grow and become stronger, especially if we want to have more than three teams dominate international rugby league. For our game to grow we need to tap into these nations with government and NRL support, so NRL clubs can tap into the large number of talented athletes these small nations can produce. There is an enormous opportunity here with great long-term benefits for the game.
The victory by Samoa on Saturday night assures them a spot in the Four Nations at the end of the season against world rugby league heavyweights Australia, New Zealand and England and will have a massive effect on the development of rugby league in Samoa. It will provide sponsorship and government support to help develop the game and will no doubt attract more kids to play our great game.
Kids need to be dreaming of playing for their country as they play in park with their mates, whether it’s at Penrith, on a dusty track in Central Queensland or on a beach in Samoa or Tonga. The more representative football we play, the better it will be for the game.
Put yourself in a bar in the Samoan capital of Apia when the Four Nations game is played, or in a house with the family crowded around the TV, and it would compare on an equal footing to how it would be in a bar in Suva if Fiji were playing instead.
Pacific Island Nations have long been the 'forgotten son', when deep down they’ve been the sleeping giant. It’s time to embrace their contribution and help continue their rapid rise in the rugby league world.