Friday, July 19

The Rugby League international game is a mess and there’s no simple answer to fix it. 

I was initially looking forward to the Tri-Nations sides being named last week – particularly the Kiwis. But as the day drew closer, we started to hear chatter about which players were making themselves available or not, whether through injury or deciding to play for another country. 

So, I have to admit, when the day finally arrived and I cast my eyes over the Kiwis squad, I was left mostly … underwhelmed. With my enthusiasm subdued, I scrolled on with life, but something began to sink in…

The international game is a pointless mess. In that, the games feel more and more pointless, and the confusion surrounding players’ eligibility for selection risks creating apathy toward the game. 

I totally understand players being injured or choosing to rest tired bodies. But to decide at the last minute which country you want to play for, leaves a sour taste and fans feeling undermined. It’s beginning to feel like the international coaches are forced into a lolly scramble for players willing to be selected in their sides each year. 

I also acknowledge and appreciate some players who hold dual passports, whose heritage and ancestry is aligned to more than one country and culture. Making a decision based on whanau and whakapapa, as opposed to the country you have grown up in, must be challenging. 

Yet playing for your country shouldn’t be something you can flip-flop between and decide on at the eleventh hour as though it’s a clothing option for a night out. And yet, that’s the situation we currently have. 

Fans are left baffled at this time of year wondering which players are even eligible for selection, let alone want to represent them if they aren’t injured or can’t be arsed. It needs to change. 

The ongoing side-effect of all this is that it contributes to diluting the power and mana of what it means to wear the black Kiwis jumper, which used to mean something. Players would give their left nut to earn the right to wear that jersey – with 100% conviction and pride. Anyone that played for the Kiwis was ‘the business’. These days it feels like that’s all it is for them – business. While it may not be true for all players, there’s just a sense creeping in that it’s another game in the calendar to earn some disposable cash and potentially use the selection as leverage when negotiating their next NRL contract. If they don’t require that leverage, then it seems they may as well rest up, so they can go into the next pre-season without any niggles. 

All of which makes logical sense, I might add. You try playing 27 rounds of NRL in the modern game and come out the other end excited to jump into a test match. Nevertheless, it leaves Kiwi supporters with a numb feeling, doesn’t it? Why should we support a team that players used to be prepared to die for, but now can’t even be bothered committing to, let alone choosing to play for over another country?

Another thing that is absolutely bonkers is how Tonga and Samoa haven’t yet been promoted to tier-one nations. How have they not been? Samoa was in the final of the World Cup, for Christ’s sake! Their sides boast Daly M players and multiple players from the Grand Final. Their sides on paper, easily stack up to Australia and New Zealand. Tonga’s forward pack is an absolute powerhouse that includes many of the biggest and best names in the NRL. How does that constitute a second-tier nation? 

However, promoting them to the first tier is a catch-22.

On one hand, making Tonga and Samoa tier one will force players into making earlier decisions on which country they wish to represent because this will impact their ability to play State of Origin. Yet on the other hand, because of the appeal State if O has, this could risk diluting the talent available for Samoa and Tonga that has gotten them into this position in the first place and made the international tournament more than just a 3 horse race between Aussie, NZ, and England. What a dilemma. 

So, the international game is a mess. What do we do? 

Perhaps at least one option to start with is giving the fans some sense of continuity and security in who is eligible for selection to represent them. So at the beginning of each season, or even every two years, or World Cup cycle, players with a registered contract in the NRL or Super League must choose an allegiance to which country they wish to be eligible to play for, and cannot be available for selection for another country.

And this way, fans, and coaches will know their options heading into tournaments. Because how on earth are they meant to develop a team and strategy without even knowing exactly who is able to be selected in their team until the last minute? At least this will provide some modicum of logic and sanity to an irrational and unpredictable playing field. 

I welcome your ideas. Because we need some. As it appears those running the game are incapable of resolving this.