Pacific reps call for eligibility fix
The growing influence of Pacific Island players in the NRL means the need to a compromise around eligibility is becoming more urgent, according to former Kiwi and Samoa star Nigel Vagana and Tonga coach Kristian Woolf.
As Woolf bluntly points out, it is impossible for a Tongan man to play in the NRL without being or becoming dual eligible, meaning the lure of representing the Kangaroos or Kiwis will always be there.
However the sport globally needs a better solution than the one that currently rubs eligible players out of representing second tier nations at World Cups when not selected by their nominated tier one nation.
A case in point is Eels back-rower Manu Ma'u, called up by Steven Kearney for his New Zealand debut this weekend. While Woolf was delighted for the Auckland born Eel to get a shot in black and white, if the Kiwis overlook the hard-running back-rower at next year's World Cup, Ma'u will be forced to watch the tournament from his couch given he will be ineligible to switch back to Tonga.
Woolf said it is a no-brainer that if players eligible for the likes of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji are not selected by Australia and New Zealand they should have the opportunity to represent those countries for the benefit of the game as a whole.
"It's almost like players are punished if they do make an election chance and I think that needs to change," Woolf told NRL.com.
"It's not a simple issue; guys like Manu Ma'u who's probably the topical one at the moment – he's obviously from a Tongan family and very proud of his Tongan heritage and he's showed that in every game he's played for us but he's also raised in New Zealand and has a strong affiliation to New Zealand.
"It's not a simple issue, I know he's very proud to represent both nations and my issue is, if he gets that opportunity to play for New Zealand and I know he's very honoured to do so, if he's not picked for New Zealand I think he should be just as eligible for Tonga and not punished for that decision."
Woolf added in names like Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Tui Lolohea, Daniel Tupou and Will Hopoate as players that could readily feature for Tonga at the World Cup if not picked for Australia or New Zealand if the eligibility rules were fixed.
"To play in the NRL as a Tongan man you have to be dual eligible. We run the risk of those sorts of guys sitting and watching a World Cup. Some of those guys might be picked for some of those nations but some of them may not," Woolf said.
"If we're serious about wanting a competitive World Cup and wanting teams like Tonga and Samoa and PNG and Fiji to be competitive you need those types of players playing."
Vagana told NRL.com it was always a tricky decision for players to make those sorts of decisions and risk not being able to feature at all as a result of chasing their Test dream with one of the dominant rugby league nations.
"One thing the game needs to fix up is the eligibility criteria and the rules around who you represent. They haven't really been updated to factor in the complications that some Pacific players and other players go through," Vagana said.
"We're a multicultural society and there's a lot of players that have opportunities: Anthony Minichiello played for Italy a couple of years ago and they were looking at him for Origin the following year and not many people realise he was ineligible.
"We shouldn't stop players from growing the game and celebrating their heritage. Now that we've got more Pacific players – guys like Kevin Naiqama and Kane Evans for Fiji, Junior Paulo, Tim Lafai, BJ Leilua [for Samoa], it goes forever.
"Feleti Mateo missed out on the World Cup with Tonga a couple of years ago because he chose to try and make a play for Origin which is fine but because they didn't require him it ruled him ineligible. We need to look at how we can grow the game but also gives these players with multiple eligibility an opportunity to help the game grow.
"It's not going to go away so unless the game and the international federation come to some sort of agreement around the rules and the criteria and helping grow the international game we're just going to get left behind. We don't have the numbers to keep players on the sideline. The sport has got to work out how to make it work for everybody, not just the big boys."