Giants benefit at expense of small nations
Frank Pritchard has flown across the world to captain Samoa on Saturday. He already has a glittering international career with New Zealand.
He’s explaining the difference between playing for the Kiwis and the Toa and he tells you about the cultural identity in the Samoan side, the honour that comes from playing for your family and your people.
Then his big face splits open with a wide grin.
“And the pay is very different!”
The financial realities of international rugby league is an obstacle that may never be overcome, but when you have giants taking stars off minnows and not giving them back there’s a serious problem.
Semi Radradra will make his second Test debut and the best Fijian player in the world will be lost to a nation who already has more players to choose from than anybody else.
The Fijians don’t begrudge Radradra choosing Australia — they understand the opportunity he’s been offered.
“We’d love to have him here, he’s a household name in Fiji and a lot of kids look up to him,” says Fijian fullback Kevin Naiqama.
In saying that, we’ve got no hard feelings and we’re happy that he’s in for Australia and there’s always a chance next year that he could come back.”
But that’s the problem — he won’t be.
The current International Rugby League Federation laws allow a player to perform one eligibility switch between World Cups. At the conclusion of a World Cup, everything is reset.
They can also change countries once a two-year “election period” has expired since their most recent switch.
So Radradra cannot play for Fiji again until after next year’s World Cup. Tuimoala Lolohea and Sio Siua Taukeiaho cannot play for Tonga, Isaac Liu and Suaia Matagi cannot play for Samoa.
On the flip side, Tony Williams plays for Tonga this weekend. Given that he played State of Origin in 2014, he is now unavailable for Test or Origin duty until 2018.
It’s confusing and somewhat ridiculous. Throw in the looming spectre of Origin and it gets even worse.
Anthony Milford didn’t want to play in this weekend’s Pacific Test because it might affect his Australian and Origin eligibility. But it wouldn’t.
He could play for Samoa this weekend and switch by the time of Origin I, just as Josh McGuire did last season.
Things like Junior Kangaroos and Junior Kiwis and New South Wales and Queensland under 20s do not impact eligibility no matter how much some people want you to think they do.
For Tonga coach Kristian Woolf, it’s a continued problem but also a solvable one.
“There’s a hell of a lot of players of Tongan heritage in the NRL and some of those players are the most talented in the NRL but it’s really difficult to get your best players in the team. “The eligibility rules as they stand are really hampering for a country like Tonga and I think they need a really quick rethink.”
“If you look at this Test, and we’re putting out a team that I think is a really good team that will represent Tonga really well, but (we could have) players like Tui Lolohea and Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Will Hopoate, Daniel Tupou, that’s just to name a few.
“I think Samoa are in the same boat, they have a lot of players they could call in and make them stronger, and you become a lot more competitive, those smaller nations can compete with those bigger nations and it certainly brings a lot more interest into international footy as well.
“As long as they make those rules simpler and make it a little bit easier to represent their heritage as well as represent those Tier 1 nations I think it’ll go a long way towards helping the international game.”