Pritchard: Pacific Tests need Origin-like standing
Samoa skipper Frank Pritchard has urged the NRL to take steps towards elevating the status of mid-year Pacific Tests to rival that of State of Origin in order for the international game to take further strides forward.
This Saturday's clash between Samoa and Tonga is arguably the most anticipated clash of the World Cup pool stages with Tonga's strengthened line-up seeking to supplant Samoa as the leading challenger to the dominance of rugby league's Tier 1 nations.
While a Tonga team inspired by Jason Taumalolo and Michael Jennings brushed past Scotland 50-4 in their opening pool game Samoa wilted in the latter stages against New Zealand to go down 38-8 in Auckland, making their task to avoid a likely quarter-final showdown with the Kangaroos that much more difficult.
Samoa have won three of the four Test matches played against Tonga since 2008 including the past two mid-year Pacific Tests that have helped to elevate the Pacific nations on the world stage, with Samoa also going close to upsetting both England and New Zealand in the 2014 Four Nations.
After representing New Zealand on 27 occasions that 2014 tournament was the first time Pritchard represented Samoa and he believes that with greater opportunity Tests between Pacific nations can rival the intensity and attention of a State of Origin Series.
"You have to look at the bigger picture. There's only that one-off test in [May] and then if there's no Four Nations at the end of the year then we lose out," Pritchard told NRL.com of the opportunities afforded Pacific island players in the representative arena.
"It's just about having the availability and clubs letting those guys play and making the stance that the Pacific Test has the same pedigree as State of Origin.
"It will take time but they need to make it a proper game first and foremost.
"The numbers that are in the NRL, I think it's something like 47 per cent that are Pacific Islanders in the game so I think the NRL need to endorse that a little bit more."
Playing for Western Samoa in the 1995 World Cup, Newcastle Knights legend John Schuster led his team to a thumping 56-10 win over France in their World Cup debut and all told have won seven of the 13 World Cup matches that they have played.
Pritchard was still representing the Kiwis when Samoa went down to Fiji 22-4 in the quarter-finals of the 2013 World Cup but 12 months later switched allegiances and has since played six Tests for the nation of his family's heritage.
It gives him a unique perspective on the debate surrounding the decisions by Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita to play for Tonga in this World Cup, a decision Pritchard says only people from those backgrounds can truly appreciate.
"Having the opportunity now to play for Samoa is massive for myself because I get to represent my family and my parents," Pritchard said.
"You've got to be in camp to experience what it's like. Everyone's on the same page, we speak the same language, we share the same culture and you understand a lot more.
"Even in the Kiwis it's the same thing, everyone buys into the culture but you've got Tongans, Samoans, Maoris who all come from different cultures.
"We all bought into the culture of what we needed to do to win but playing for Samoa you're only there to represent your culture and heritage.
"The fact that the boys have chosen to play for Tonga is awesome. We need to embrace that as an international rugby league, especially the Tier 2 nations. It evens the playing field."