Jason Taumalolo leading the Sipi Tau for Tonga against the Kiwis at the Rugby League World Cup (Getty Images)

At long last, the NRL is waking up to the Pacific’s rugby league potential

The NRL’s International Rugby League proposals are a sign that they’re finally waking up to the potential of giving Pacific Island nations something serious to play for.

On the face of it, it seems obvious. An Oceania Cup between New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji and an international Nines tournament in 2019. A Four Nations tournament that swaps out Fiji for Australia in 2020. Could it really be that an outbreak of common sense on international sport has taken hold in a domestic league?

Everyone saw the passion that nations like Tonga, Fiji and Samoa brought to the Rugby League World Cup, both in the Islands, and in New Zealand. When played the Kiwis in Hamilton, the red flags in the crowd made it look like the game was being played in Nukuʻalofa. And when Tonga won, the explosion of joy on the streets of Auckland was thrilling.

But after the tournament finished, the reality set in. What opportunity would the players who joined up for the tournament have to represent Tonga again? A few one-off internationals here and there, another World Cup in four years time. It was paltry, and there were justified fears that Jason Taumalolo, David Fusitu’a and co would just drift back to the Kiwis, and Andrew Fifita to the Kangaroos.

But under these proposals (which still need to be ratified after a round of consultation) countries like Tonga would have something real and regular to offer these players, so that they stick around. Pride in heritage goes a long way, but professional sportspeople don’t often let sentimentality trump the need to make a living – and fair enough too.

One thing that International Rugby League has been very clever about is basing eligibility entirely on heritage and choice, rather than citizenship, and letting players move teams if desired. It means teams like Lebanon – made up pretty much completely of Australians with Lebanese heritage – can compete and have success, without the game needing to be big in the country itself. In the context of a sport like League, which only really exists in a small number of countries, it makes perfect sense to embrace the multiculturalism of those places to make the competition worthwhile.

The current NRL players are only one part of it though – they’re already at a level in which they can pick their pathway. For Tongan teenagers and kids coming through in New Zealand, there has been a huge shift in mindset, which was happening before the World Cup took place, but was thrown into the spotlight by Tonga’s success.

One of the people who has played a major role in that shift is Hengi Fusitu’a, who is heavily involved in grassroots Rugby League in Auckland’s Tongan community. He says that for the generation that Jason Taumalolo was part of, representing Tonga at age-group level was huge for their development, and sowed the seeds for future success.

“Now when we see kids at tournaments now, they just want to play for Tonga,” said Fusitu’a. “Loyalty, heritage. It’s hard to explain, but we have the feeling of wanting to represent, and represent Tonga well. It’s wanting to see Tonga succeed, and not just in Rugby League. We come from a very small island but we want Tonga to lift.” It wasn’t limited to League fans either – the World Cup became a unifying force for the wider community.

He says that while many of the players now representing Tonga developed in New Zealand, it was through Tongan pathways. And Fusitu’a said that while it was also a proud moment for the rest of the community when those players were called up for New Zealand rep teams, their hearts are now set on wearing the red jersey.

The World Cup success has also had direct impacts on the number of kids wanting to play the game. Fusitu’a runs a junior, U12 programme for Tongan kids, in the last couple of years they’ve had 80-100 signups. But in the year since the World Cup, that number has swelled to 360. “I had to cut the registrations off,” Fusitu’a said ruefully. “We don’t have the resources for any more.” Many of the kids had previously played Rugby Union too, but now wanted to play League.

All of that adds up to an incredible opportunity for Rugby League to steal a march on its rivals. All professional sports need to find ways to grow if they can, and currently League is effectively only a mass participation sport in New South Wales, Queensland, parts of Northern England and Auckland. That’s not really enough to broaden it out as a viable international game, but strong Pacific Island nations change that dynamic completely.

There’s one other really smart aspect of the NRL’s proposed international calendar – it appears future Kiwis vs England games in Denver aren’t part of it. By the dearth of stars who turned out for that game, it was clear that it doesn’t really fit into the calendar. It would seem the NRL understands they’re much better off taking the international game to people and places who actually already care about it.   


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