Rugby league representatives 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.
Under the current eligibility rule, Pacific players will have to commit to playing for Australia if they feature in the State of Origin competition.
However under the proposed eligibility rules aimed at boosting the international game before next year’s World Cup, these players can choose to represent the country of their heritage.
Cook Islands Rugby League chairman Charles Carlson has welcomed the move.
“This will be good for our players to reach that level of competition providing they are still eligible to play for their Pacific teams if they miss out on selection. Australia normally names their final squad after the State of Origin so there will be some players that misses out,” Carlson said.
“The State of Origin has always been strong and at one stage was more dominant than the international games. I think there has been a change in the tide now with the stronger emphasis on the international calendar by International Rugby League.”
Carlson said the rise of the Pacific teams such as Tonga have also contributed to that change.
“Now there is a lot of talk about the World Cup 2021 with all tier one and tier two Pacific teams participating and fielding their very best players. Perhaps this has forced Australia Rugby League to look at options to maintain that State of Origin status.”
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 International Rugby League 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 NSW Rugby League chief executive officer 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, Australia rugby league 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.”
Meanwhile Charles Carlson said: “While the Cook Islands have been off the radar since missing out in the 2017 World Cup qualifying against Tonga, their performance at the World Cup Nines defeating favourites Tonga and the high-flying Fijians stunned the world of rugby league.”
“Now they are back with vengeance with an enormous effort to qualify both men and women for the World Cup 2021 in England.”
Brad Watler (NRL.com