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How Pacific nations are preparing players for Origin

NSW coach Brad Fittler’s decision to thrust rookie prop Daniel Saifiti into Sunday night’s must-win State of Origin in Perth may have raised some eyebrows but he already has international pedigree.

The Newcastle front-rower is set to become the latest player to benefit from playing at international level for a Pacific nation.

One of seven new faces in the Blues team after their 18-14 loss in Origin I, Saifiti did not represent NSW at junior level but has already worn a sky-blue representative jersey after playing three Tests for Fiji.

Bati teammate Tariq Sims was also recalled for his second Origin with the Blues, while Queensland forwards Josh McGuire and Felise Kaufusi played for Samoa and Tonga respectively before earning Maroons selection.

Sims, whose brother Korbin will line up for Fiji in Saturday night’s Pacific Test against Lebanon at Leichhardt Oval, has represented the Bati on five occasions, while McGuire played six Tests for Samoa and Kaufusi has worn the red of Tonga five times.

Maroons prop Josh Papali’i played for Samoa at the 2017 World Cup, while injured forward Joe Ofahengaue had played six Tests for Tonga before making his Queensland debut in the series opener.

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Those involved with the Maroons camp were impressed by how comfortably he made the transition from NRL level to Origin.

Former Fiji coach Mick Potter and captain James Storer believe Saifiti is also well prepared for his first Origin after being blooded by the Knights at just 19-years-of-age and playing three Tests for the Bati since 2015.

“I’ve got no doubt Daniel will give a good account of himself,” Potter said. “He is aggressive, he is a big guy and he has a big engine so he can play long minutes, and he has got the mentality for it.

“Playing for Fiji has probably played a part. Being around a few more senior players would be a different experience and having been in those camps he will take a little bit of that experience with him into State of Origin.

“His confidence will be way higher than three years ago when he came into first grade at the Knights and I am really happy for him. He is a nice young man, very polite and what you see off the field is very different to what you see on the field.”

Storer, who captained the Bati in the 2016 Pacific Test against Papua New Guinea, said being in camp with other players of Fiji heritage had provided a good introduction to representative football for Saifiti.

“That kid is ready,” Storer said.

“In training he was always competing with the other boys and he was a leader, even at such a young age. We forgot how young he is but he is very mature.

“When I first played there were only six of us coming from Australia but now the whole Fiji team is from the NRL. You get so grounded from day one, from that very first church session we do. I think that is what helps with these young boys, and they get so much confidence.

“I think coming into our camp they feel that vibe that we are all one here, and that is how it was. We were brothers and I think he will go into that Origin camp now feeling confident and ready to go.”

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Like many players who represent a Pacific nation at international level, Saifiti’s debut for Fiji in 2015 helped prepare him for playing NRL with Newcastle the following season.

He demonstrated his pride in playing for the Bati by posting a photo of himself and then 12-year-old twin Jacob with former Knights star Akuila Uate after the 2008 World Cup match between Fiji and France at WIN Stadium.

The brothers later played alongside Uate, who represented NSW in five Origins, in the 2016 Pacific Test against Papua New Guinea.

A shoulder reconstruction sidelined Saifiti from the 2017 World Cup but Jacob was a member of the Bati side which qualified for a third consecutive semi-final appearance after defeating the Kiwis in Wellington.

Changes to eligibility rules led to the most keenly contested Word Cup since the concept began in 1954 and sparked new interest in the international game after Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita led a defection of star players to Tonga from New Zealand and Australia.

It is hoped that Martin Taupau’s decision to commit to Samoa, whom he first represented in 2013 before playing 24 Tests for the Kiwis, will have a similar impact and Jamayne Isaako has also pledged his allegiance to the Pacific nation for Saturday night’s Oceania Cup clash with the Kumuls.

Under the international eligibility rules, players who qualify for more than one country can switch between a tier one and tier two nation.

To be eligible for a country, a player must either be born there or have a parent or grandfather who was. A player can also qualify on residential grounds if he has lived in a country for more than five years.

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However, a player who represents either Australia, New Zealand or England is unable to play for one of the other tier one nations.

The rule enables the likes of Ofahengaue and rookie Queensland forward David Fifita to play for Tonga at the end of the season if they are not chosen by Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga for the Oceania Cup.

Saifiti and Sims will also remain eligible for Fiji, and players of Pacific heritage can continue to play Origin but to qualify for NSW or Queensland they must have resided in the state before the age of 13.

Other players to have represented a tier two or three nation before playing Origin include NSW fullback James Tedesco and prop Paul Vaughan (Italy), Blues second-rower Tyson Frizell (Wales) and injured prop Payne Haas (Philippines).

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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