Friday, July 19

Why the international game needs to be reframed as Origin.

Let’s face it, there are two competitions that dominate rugby league and where pretty much all the talent for international teams is derived from – the NRL and Super League. Those two competitions hold all the money, and power, and whether consciously or not, influence the decisions of players to compete internationally. The game is not global in the true sense of the word. While the rugby league World Cup featured 16 teams, almost all players were sourced from the NRL, or Super League, with a few minor exceptions for France, Papua New Guinea, etc. Countries aren’t selecting players representative of their local competitions. They are selecting players, often with tenuous ties, to their heritage. So, let’s acknowledge the international game for what it is – Country of Origin. 

Australia dominates rugby league in the southern hemisphere and blatantly feels a moral sense of ownership, superiority, and entitlement. They hold the purse strings and State of Origin maintains a massive financial footprint and more importance to players, than representing their country. In fact, playing in an NRL grand final or State of Origin series likely holds greater appeal and allure to players, than representing their country. You would imagine 80% of players would feel this way, and the other 20% are lying for fear of how whānau or the public would view them for it. Because when was the last time you heard an Allblacks player say they aren’t going to play for the ABs this year, because they want to rest up and look forward to getting their bodies right for next season’s Super Rugby campaign? Pretty much, never. But that’s essentially what Shaun Johnson and many others have done this year. And I’m not for one second bagging Shaun Johnson or anyone else for that decision. The NRL is a far more taxing on a player’s body, especially a Warrior, in terms of the longevity of the competition throughout the year, and the travel involved. He’s likely made the right call and it makes sense. The point here is, that playing rugby league for a club (where the bulk of their salary comes from) or State of Origin, holds more weight than playing international footy. 

So, who are we kidding? Anyone trying to promote or grow the international game is pushing shit uphill. Tier two nations don’t have strong local competitions to draw from and if we’re being honest, neither does NZ. At best, they have what could be categorised as development and social clubs. It used to be assumed that any country entering a team to represent them in a sporting code, was selecting the majority of their players from their own domestic competitions. They had climbed to be the best in their country and would go into represent them as such. The All blacks have held firm to this and it’s provided them with a sense of dominance, but also authenticity. Because a status is afforded to a country when they do well internationally. But, times have changed. 

There were players that represented a country in the last Rugby League World Cup, that hadn’t ever set foot in the country they were playing for. That’s not really an international game, is it?  That’s just making up the numbers to provide a false economy of how big the game really is. It’s not authentic and the public is beginning to smell it.  Be honest – Addin Fonua Blake isn’t really from Tonga. He might be of Tongan and Kiwi ancestry, but he was born in NSW and lived in Aussie and NZ his whole life. He’s never actually lived in Tonga. Robbie Farah is not from Lebanon. He’s of Lebanese descent and clearly proud of that heritage. But he’s barely even been there, let alone lived there. Jerome Hughes was born in Wellington, NZ, and is of Māori heritage, so that’s definitely something – but he moved to the Gold Coast when he was 12 years old and has never lived in NZ since. He’s pretty much an Aussie. All his milestones and achievements have occurred there. His first kiss, high school education, first beer, and meaningful rugby league development were all in Australia. You can’t genuinely say Hughes is a product of the NZ system. And there’s a better-than-average chance he remains living in Australia after his playing days are over, as will most of the players representing the Kiwis. 

I’m sorry, but these players aren’t genuinely representative of the people and countries they purport to play for. How can they be? That’s not much of a stretch from owning a poodle for 10 years and deciding I now identify as a poodle, and after learning a bit about where poodles come from, I’m now eligible to enter Best in Show!

Players may feel a connection to their heritage because their whakapapa has been maintained through their whānau. And that’s fantastic and should be applauded and commended. There isn’t anything wrong with these players deciding to represent Tonga, Lebanon, NZ, or whoever. I love that Hughes wants to represent NZ. They want to put something back into their countries of origin. But for many players (for example, Murray Taulagi), they should realise they would do far more for their country of origin if they declared their allegiance from the start. 

And we should adapt to how we are viewing and labeling the international game to account for the intricacies that come with their representation. Because it’s not truly Scotland vs New Zealand, or Tonga vs Samoa, in the traditional sense we’re accustomed to, given there isn’t a single player selected that’s playing within one of their domestic rugby league competitions. Players from NZ aren’t chosen because they were playing for Otahuhu, or Mt Albert anymore. They are all from the NRL, or Super League.  

What I’m getting at here, is that until the game has grown so big that there are professional or competitive leagues existing in many other countries and they aren’t forced to select all their players from NRL or Super League, then we need to view the International game in the same way Australia views State of Origin. We need to view it as a Country of Origin. When a player registers their contract with the NRL or Super League, or any professional league, they must choose which Origin they plan on representing. If they choose to ever switch, then they must acknowledge that with the intentional body, and stand down for 3 years.

Individual athletes like golfers, swimmers, or tennis players, fly their nation’s flag, despite hardly ever living there anymore. But it’s a BIG deal if they switch their country’s allegiance. Yet team sports have a different aesthetic. There’s always been an expectation that most of the players in the side are selected from domestic competitions within the country they are representing. That’s begun evolving with soccer being far more competitive outside of just England and European leagues. It’s creeping into other codes, too, like basketball. There’s nothing wrong with it so long as we acknowledge it for what it is. It’s not truly reflective of that country’s domestic leagues.

Any Tri-Nations series or World Cup should be labeled World Cup of Origin, Tri Nations of Origin. This reframing will provide a better context and perspective to view the game and players who represent their countries of origin. We know these players aren’t being selected from a NZ competition, or a Samoan competition, etc. So why pretend? Let’s acknowledge it for what it is.  It’s the way of the new world.  

 It’s Country of Origin.