I agree with Fiji’s head coach Brandon Costin that the Pacific islanders can one day win rugby league’s World Cup.
I also know that now is the time for our sport to strike by putting some of our best footballers – an Australian Prime Minister’s XIII – on the ground in Fiji to showcase our great game. It was announced this week that I’ll be taking our PM’s team alongside the Jillaroos to Suva’s ANZ National Stadium in October.
It seems rugby union is turning its back on the Pacific with the creation of its new World League, which excludes Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, from this new top-flight competition.
Rugby league has already begun sowing the seeds. Prior to the 2017 World Cup the Kangaroos Test squad had a little tri-series in Fiji and that was very well received. Obviously Fiji has a team joining the Canterbury Cup in NSW in 2020 and now rugby’s focus in its international schedule has shifted away.
It couldn’t be a better opportunity for rugby league to spread its wings through the Pacific. It is such a premium nursery for rugby league talent, so I agree with Costin.
If the Fiji National Rugby League can show they’ve got the right structures and governance, combined with how passionate the fans are when they have success like their Rugby Sevens team, then the whole Fiji nation will get behind rugby league.
Tonga is already on a successful path. I feel Samoa should be doing better considering the amount of talent they have. Maybe it’s just a matter of belief for the Samoans. And maybe seeing Fiji’s ambition, and Tonga’s rise will put some peer group pressure on the Samoans to lift a little more or get left behind.
Because there is a large population of Pacific islanders in the NRL, that in turn takes away the strength of the Australian and New Zealand programs. We see how many England players are coming to the NRL – it’s the English Raiders in Canberra this year – so it means a larger number of nationalities are coming into our competition.
It’s similar to the English Premier League in soccer, or baseball and basketball in America, where the world starts coming into one location to play in the best competition, with the best conditions and money.
Where I think Fiji has to develop a little more is building some strength around their forwards. We have seen what their wingers and centres can do.
But with the Sims brothers, Ashton and Korbin, and Regan Campbell-Gillard, who played two Tests for Fiji in 2014, having Fijian ancestry, that shows you how impressive a Fiji team could be for the 2021 World Cup.
Another stepping stone in Fiji’s rising power is the World Nines this year in Sydney. It is a great opportunity for developing nations to compete at the highest end.
It’s a concept that will play right into the hands of the Fijian skills of speed and unpredictability.
Some might ask if Samoa and Tonga should strive to enter the NSWRL and QRL reserve grade competitions as the PNG Hunters have done in the Intrust Super Cup and the Fiji in Canterbury Cup.
But getting a team ready for that level takes a lot of money, a lot of corporate support and it needs the backing of each national government to keep it sustainable. So whether Tonga and Samoa have that type of commercial clout just yet is the question.
But I see so many so players of Samoan, Tonga, Fijian heritage in the NRL that those countries will always have strong national sides.
The PM’s XIII has been going to Port Moresby since 2005. The Papua New Guinean fans have a tour match there this year with the Great Britain Lions playing the Kumuls in November, while the PNG Orchids will also play a Pacific All Stars side.
I think Australia has a bigger obligation to the Pacific than just PNG. If we’re serious about propagating our game and helping our Pacific neighbours we’ve got to share the international games around.
From a strategic point of view it makes great sense to me to go to Fiji at the end of this season. The ramifications will be plentiful.