Australia defections are good for talent distribution at Rugby League World Cup

This World Cup is something of a milestone in terms of international rugby league’s growth. In Australia, however, much of the commentary has sought to drive controversy around the defections of some of the country’s best players to other nations.

New South Wales State of Origin winger Brian To’o and teen prodigy Joseph Suaalii headline the growing throng who have elected to represent the Pasifika nations of their heritage, a group also including Origin representatives Josh Papalii, Junior Paulo, Stephen Crichton, David Fifita and Siosifa Talakai. It is a choice they say was made to bolster the strength of their ancestral homes and pay tribute to their families.

Suaalii’s decision to represent Samoa, in particular, came as a shock given the 19-year-old had been touted as one of the youngest Australian players ever to have donned the green and gold. After a stellar year for the Roosters and inclusion in the wider Blues squad, he was set to win selection for the Kangaroos. Instead, he opted to play for his father’s homeland.

The subsequent outrage seemingly has no end, including a push to bar from State of Origin those who do not make themselves eligible for Australia – effectively advocating to constrict the international growth of the game in recent years.

Unchallenged Australian dominance does nothing to mature the code. It confines all other nations to also-ran status and ensures that the squads of island countries, especially, become a mish-mash of NRL journeymen and lower-tier players who have little ambition or chance of receiving an Origin call-up.

So it must be celebrated when Origin stars choose to represent Samoa and Tonga and thrust both into finals contention– an inconceivable prospect even five years ago. Allegiances to state and country, given the make-up of the NRL in 2022, do not need to be aligned. To the contrary, the NRL should work with the Rugby Football League to level match payments across nations and thus incentivise a distribution of talent.

Threatening Origin bans for those who wish to represent a foreign nation of Tier 2 or Tier 3 status is an archaic, myopic view of rugby league which only serves to constrict the game to the east coast of Australia, Northern England, Southern France, South Auckland and Papua New Guinea. It is also disrespectful to the changing demographics of the game.

New Zealand’s famous upset win over Australia in 2008 – the only time the Kangaroos have failed to win the World Cup since 1972 – spurred the international game on. The most seminal moment this century was the decision by Jason Taumalolo and a band of Kiwi players to defect from New Zealand and represent Tonga at the last World Cup. Tonga went on to reach the semi-finals, only narrowly lost to England and have since defeated Australia.

In this respect, the rise of Pasifika participation in the NRL and the willingness of those players to represent their nations of ancestry has helped level the playing field and fed a desire – at least among players – to do their bit to grow the game abroad. As recently as the early 1990s, only a handful of players in the premiership identified as Maori or Pasifika. By 2011, 30% of the NRL identified as Maori or Pasifika. Eleven years later that number had risen to 45%. The NRL claims this year that players’ parents or grandparents were born in 144 different countries.

The opportunity to grow rugby league on the international stage is clear and obvious. The game’s willingness to seize that opportunity is another question entirely. Time and time again, through lack of desire, incompetence, inertia – or a combination of all three – it has refused to put in the structural work.

This year 16 teams will compete at the men’s World Cup. All bar France, Jamaica and Wales will have at least one current NRL player. Countries as disparate as Lebanon, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands all boast at least five players with NRL experience.

The rise of Lebanon is a telling story of growth with the support of top-tier players. League in Lebanon started in 2000 via a group of Sydney players of Lebanese descent. Just 22 years later, a 10-team domestic competition is thriving in Lebanon and, at the last World Cup, the Cedars downed France and nearly upset Tonga. Parramatta’s grand final half-back, Mitchell Moses, has jumped at the chance to skipper the nation of his descent. Moses also represented NSW last year.

This latest iteration of the tournament once again presents opportunity. This is the time the Australian game needs to break its self-serving cycle.