Junior Paulo and Kotoni Staggs would be able to represent NSW in State of Origin without having to commit to playing for Australia under proposed eligibility rules aimed at boosting the international game before next year’s World Cup.
Representatives of the ARLC and IRL are reviewing eligibility rules for State of Origin and Tests with a view to developing pathways and ensuring the Pacific nations are able to field their strongest teams.
Staggs, Paulo, Josh Papalii, David Fifita, Joe Ofahengaue, Felise Kaufusi, Daniel Tupou and Tevita Pangai are among dozens of NRL stars eligible for Pacific nations as well as Australia through birth, residency, citizenship or heritage.
It is estimated a player could, in theory, potentially qualify for up to nine nations.
With 52 per cent of NRL players being of Polynesian heritage, it is in the game’s interests to support and develop the Pacific nations and IRL deputy chairman Troy Grant has been working on strategy to ensure they have access to their best players now and in the future.
Grant has consulted with NSWRL CEO David Trodden, Blues coach Brad Fittler, former State of Origin mentors Wayne Bennett and Phil Gould and New Zealand coach Michael Maguire, while he also plans to speak to Maroons coach Kevin Walters.
Among the issues raised are the international calendar and scheduling clashes between State of Origin and Test matches, which force players with dual eligibility to choose between NSW or Queensland and the likes of Tonga, Samoa, Fiji or Papua New Guinea.
State of Origin payments of $30,000 per match are a lure for players to opt for NSW or Queensland over a Pacific nation and those who represent the Blues or Maroons are expected to play for Australia if selected by Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga.
However, ARLC chairman Peter V’landys said earlier this week that the best eligible players should be available for State of Origin without being forced to play for Australia and Grant welcomed his support for the international game.
“The chairman gets it and understands the need to continually invest in and grow the international game, particularly given the high representation of Pacific players in the NRL,” Grant said.
“To the great credit of the ARLC, their investment in the Pacific nations and the rise of Tonga in recent years on the back of selfless dedication of players led by Jason Taumalolo, we have a unique opportunity to again elevate the international game to showcase more matches involving a growing number of competitive nations.
‘The lure of the State of Origin and the financial reward and opportunity to play in the pinnacle sporting event in Australia can diminish player availability for international matches.”
With no Tests this year due to COVID-19, the IRL is working with the Asia Pacific Confederation and the Rugby League European Federation to be in the position coming out of the pandemic.
Significantly, Grant said the IRL was aiming to establish genuine partnerships and relationships with the NRL and Super League, as well as the RLPA.
“To my great surprise and disappointment I was told recently that is something that wasn’t done before,” Grant said.
“In addition, the lack of confidence NRL clubs have had until recently in the welfare of those players involved in International matches has been improved, and will continue to do so.
“In this day and age, the commercial viability of any product in the sporting market has to be sound and we are working diligently to achieve that, which will ultimately give the game the international calendar - a somewhat holy grail - that has been sought after and promised for far too long.”
Grant is also looking to ensure the international game remains strong by developing pathways that would enable school-age players to represent their New Zealand or Polynesian heritage through the establishment of junior Kiwis or Pacific Island teams in Australia.
Sit back and marvel at this try from Payne Haas
The move would enable the likes of Brisbane’s David Fifita and Payne Haas to represent Tonga or Samoa respectively at junior level without denying them the opportunity to play State of Origin.
Representative opportunities would also be created for more players as Australian Schoolboys teams often include players who have moved from New Zealand on scholarships, who are then chosen to play against the Junior Kiwis
“I’ve been working with NSWRL CEO David Trodden and Blues coach ‘Freddy’ Fittler, international coaches such as ‘Madge’ Maguire, Wayne Bennett, who set up the QRL pathways system, and ‘Gus’ Gould, to better understand how we can elevate the international game at the schoolboy/schoolgirl level without denying those who may qualify for Origin to also play in that match,” Grant said.
“However, to protect the integrity of Origin after 40 years of incredible success, NSW and Queensland won’t want to overreach and diminish the State vs State rivalry, as we now also have an excellent annual Maori vs Indigenous All Stars match to celebrate.
“The reality is that we live in a very multi-cultural world and multi-cultural country, and I’m confident that by working together we can offer rugby league the best of all worlds to compliment the NRL and Super League professional leagues.”