Samoa plan to close rugby league disparity

In 148 first grade games over nine seasons across three different NRL clubs, Ben Roberts has never seen the view upon a rugby league pedestal.  

Once this Four Nations campaign wraps up, he’ll depart for England’s west Yorkshire town of Castleford with no grand final ring and no memories of World Club glory. 

More importantly however, he’ll leave without a hint of regret. 

Because if Toa Samoa achieve what was once thought the near-impossible and qualify for a Four Nations final, then Roberts will have overseen the rise of a new rugby league powerhouse. It's a far cry from the disappointment they were in the 2008 World Cup. 

“When I first played for Samoa [in 2008], we didn’t get paid at all,” Roberts recalled. 

“But it didn’t matter to me because when I got asked to play by Nigel Vagana, seeing blokes like him, Francis Meli and David Solomona pull the jersey on, it was a no-brainer for me.”

One of Roberts’ teammates from his Samoa debut, Frank Puletua, remembered how inferior the pay packets of the minnow nations were to the world’s big three. 

“When I was at the World Cup, my brother was playing for New Zealand and I was playing for Samoa, we were getting 100 pound a week and they were getting 1500 pound a week,” Puletua said. 

“So there’s a fair difference. Obviously there would have been a fair rise in terms of what the boys would receive for Samoa, but I daresay it’s still nowhere near what the Australian and New Zealand players are getting.”

It’s why Puletua believes players from the island nations are torn between the financial advantages on offer by electing to play Origin or for New Zealand as opposed to committing solely to their home nation. 

“The fact of the matter is there’s still a disparity between those nations and the big three countries and a lot of it’s probably more the commercial element to it,” he says. 

“None of the players, be it a current player or a former player, are going to begrudge anyone for going to those big three nations because there’s a substantial return for playing for those nations. 

“It’d be really interesting if we could get some of these countries like Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, who have a very large representation in the NRL, up to parity in terms of the investment and corporate support there is. 

“And then we’ll see a genuine decision made between representing one or the other.”

While the monetary gap may not be closing, Roberts, 29, believes the footballing disparity is. While the current Four Nations table says Samoa have lost their two games thus far, they could have just as easily been undefeated. 

“The gap’s definitely closing. That’s our goal right now – to close that gap even more. It’d be great if we could play in the Four Nations every year. We want the world to take notice of us and not just as a team that’s making up the numbers, but winning it as well,” he said. 

The likelihood of that happening this year is remote. 

Just to make next week’s final in Wellington, Samoa are relying on New Zealand defeating England on Saturday and then upsetting Australia in Wollongong on Sunday – as well as making up a -10 points differential with the Poms - there’s more chance of Samoa being sponsored by Google. 

“As far as people not giving us a chance, saying that we're the underdogs, that's fair enough. We obviously haven't earned the right to be favourites in any of these games,” Roberts tells NRL.com. 

“Obviously playing against the top three teams in the world, we're making up that fourth spot. But our thought process at the moment – and has been since day one – is that we're not here to make numbers up. 

“We're here to shake the comp a bit, and let the rugby league world know who we are. This whole experience in general so far, it's been great for the rugby league of Samoa. 

“And to be honest, I can only see it getting stronger and stronger. The more chances and opportunities we get to play rep football as a team, we can only get better and better.”

But on the off-chance that it does happen – and the longer rugby league is played, the kookier it gets – then it’d be some journey for the country’s most capped Test player. 

A win over this year’s clubmates in Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith, as well as a place at the podium in Wellington next week, would be the perfect way for one of the game’s true enigmas to depart. 

“I've learnt a lot this year down in Melbourne from Coops and Cam. What I've learnt there I've just tried to bring here, and just tried to carry on with [my] form heading into this campaign. I'm pretty much treating every game like it's my last. I want to go out on a bit of a high,” he said. 

“I'm trying not to think about it. Come the final whistle, that's when it'll hit me more. As long as I do my family proud and I'm happy with the way I'm performing, then that's all I can ask for.”