Pacific rising: Call to loosen eligibility
Players eligible for second-tier nations such as Tonga and Samoa are being unfairly punished if they pursue an opportunity with an Australian or New Zealand Test or Origin squad, says Tonga coach Kristian Woolf.
It is virtually impossible for a player to reach Test level with a nation such as Tonga without also becoming eligible for a top-tier nation along the way, according to Woolf, who added every one of the 18 players in his squad for Saturday night's World Cup qualifier against Cook Islands is eligible for Australia or New Zealand.
For example, two young players who turned out for Tonga in their last-start loss to Samoa in May – Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Tuimoala Lolohea – are unavailable for Tonga this weekend after being called up to the Kiwi squad to tour England.
In both players' cases their strong form was arguably enough on its own for the call-up, though a raft of injuries to top line Kiwis certainly helped.
However if either or both players are overlooked by the Kiwis after this tour they will be left cooling their heels in the international wilderness for two years because they will be unable to return to Tongan colours for 24 months after appearing for New Zealand.
This is not only unfair on the players, it could discourage other dual eligible players chasing their dreams and it is bad for the international game overall, according to Woolf, who called on the Rugby League International Federation to revisit eligibility rules, especially when it comes to second-tier nations.
"[Taukeiaho and Lolohea] both got the opportunity to go overseas over to England with the New Zealand team, which is a great opportunity for them and their football career and the real disappointment with that is it means they're ineligible for Tonga for the next two years as the rules sit," Woolf told NRL.com.
"I really hope that's something that's looked into and there's a little bit more flexibility around it. I don't think they should be punished so to speak for taking that opportunity with New Zealand by not being able to come back and play for us if that's their avenue over the next couple of years.
"Some flexibility in those rules would certainly help in terms of helping your tier two nations becoming more competitive with your first-tier nations."
Although there is a wealth of talent in the island nations, for those players to develop to NRL level they have to move to Australia or New Zealand for coaching and development with an NRL squad. By the time they progress through the school system to first grade they have lived in their adopted country long enough to be eligible for that country.
"Every single player on our team is dual eligible. You can't be from Tonga and play in the NRL unless you live in New Zealand or Australia and you've only got to live there a couple of years to be dual eligible so every player in our squad is eligible for a couple of nations," Woolf said.
"We're obviously at risk at some stage of a lot of those players getting a call into a New Zealand side or an Australian representative side and it's certainly something I'd hope the international rugby league looks at making the rules a little bit more flexible for players to go back and forth between tier one and tier two nations."
Woolf added a number of New Zealand private schools were spotting talent from places like Tonga and Samoa which again was good for development of the players but a risk for the development of those Test sides.
"New Zealand private schools have cottoned on to the wealth of talent that is in countries like Tonga and Samoa and a lot of those players get their opportunity through those private schools and playing rugby union through those private schools," he said.
"Then obviously the Warriors under-20s system is very good at bringing those players into rugby league. It gives those players an opportunity to make it to the highest level. At the same time it makes them dual eligible which means they can play for Tonga or New Zealand."
The one other thing Woolf said would benefit the growth of the game in emerging rugby league nations is simply to play more international footy.
"It's always difficult because international footy falls at a difficult time. Players and coaches and everybody have had a long season and everyone would like a rest but if you want international footy to continue to improve then we need to commit to it," Woolf said.
The World Cup qualifier between Tonga and the Cook Islands will be live streamed on NRL.com from 7.30pm on Saturday night AEDT.