Rugby League

Rise of Pacific nation rugby league sides is bad news for Kangaroos

"Our depth is the Samoan team."

That was former Kangaroos captain Brad Fittler's take on what had happened to Australia's often touted pools of talent when asked during an interview with the BBC last weekend to explain why the world champions were not dominating the Four Nations as they had in the past.

Pita Godinet of Samoa celebrates a try during the Four Nations match against England.
Pita Godinet of Samoa celebrates a try during the Four Nations match against England.  Photo: Getty Images

For decades it has been claimed Australia could pick three or four teams capable of beating other nations but with 37 per cent of present NRL players being of Polynesian heritage, and even higher percentages at junior representative level, that is rapidly changing – as has been demonstrated in the end of season tournament.

Of the present 24-man Australian squad, Josh Papalii and Sione Mata'utia could be playing for Samoa against the Kangaroos at WIN Stadium on Sunday, while Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou have previously represented Tonga.

With Samoa's Joey Leilua, Josh McGuire, Tim Lafai and Daniel Vidot all tipped as future State of Origin prospects, along with Fiji's Semi Radradra, Kane Evans and Tariq and Korbin Sims, PNG hooker James Segayaro and Cook Islands prop Dylan Napa, the representation of players with Polynesian heritage is set to increase.   

But while the lure of Origin means many will do as Anthony Milford has done and choose Australia (or Queensland) over Samoa, the Kangaroos cannot pick everyone and the emergence of so many players of Pacific Island heritage at last appears to have created meaningful international competition.

"We are still breeding home grown players but we never had Tonga, we never had Samoa, we never had Fiji and now we have got those teams," former Australian coach and selector Bob Fulton said. "The ones who are born and bred in Australia, if they are not selected in the Australian side, they filter back to the island nations and they become stronger.

"It has been absolutely brilliant for the game and could you imagine if we had a composite side of players out of those Pacific island teams. They would be serious competition for England, New Zealand and also Australia."

THE PACIFIC EXPLOSION

Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens recalls how he and Canberra assistant Dean Lance attended the 1992 Pacific Cup in Auckland to recruit players and they were the only club there.

"There were no managers, no clubs and the Warriors weren't around at that time," Sheens said. "There was talent everywhere and we not only brought back Noa Nadruku but John Lomax, Quentin Pongia, Sean Hoppe and Ruben Wiki were all identified at that tournament. I don't even know if the Pacific Cup still runs but players these days are all pre-identified."

As an example, St George Illawarra this week welcomed Albert Viali and Gordon Lemisio from Samoa for a six-week trial after they were identified by Dragons officials during a visit to the island nation in May.

Sheens travelled to Samoa in July with a delegation that included Sonny Bill Williams and was headed by NRL chief executive Dave Smith, and the Australian mentor will visit Fiji after the Four Nations with Radradra and NRL head of football Todd Greenberg.

"Dave is determined to spread the game to the islands so what they are doing is putting development people there and trying to win over the islands to predominantly play rugby league or at least support the people who want to play rugby league in those places because they are bereft of facilities and things like that," Sheens said.

INTERNATIONAL CREDIBILITY

Samoan officials claim Papalii and Mata'utia would be playing against Australia at WIN Stadium on Sunday if the Kangaroos had not chosen them, while Warriors forward Suaia Matagi accepted a flight and team gear from them before opting to play for New Zealand.

But the fact former Kiwis star Frank Pritchard declared himself unavailable for New Zealand so he could play for Samoa has been a boost for the island nation. 

"What has happened in this tournament is a massive step for rugby league in the islands," Jennings, who played for Tonga at the 2008 World Cup, said. "I think a lot of players will now want to go and play for their country."

Fittler said the tournament had provided a glimpse of how good international rugby league could be. 

"Given how entertaining it is, it's the first step for a much better international competition as long as we do it right," he told Telstra's Sports Fan.

COMBATTING RUGBY UNION

Paul Broughton, one of the game's greatest innovators, recently sent a document to the NRL and Rugby League International Federation outlining the case for players from the Pacific islands to be included in the proposed rookie draft and calling for development fees to be paid to those countries for any player signed by an NRL club.

"There are 200 Fijians playing rugby union in France [and] 100 of those should be playing here," Broughton said

He also warned of the threat of bids for Japanese and Singapore-based franchises to join the Super Rugby competition, as it is proposed that those teams would comprise mainly Pacific island players. The Singapore bid is backed by the Samoa Rugby Union.

"If we do not grab the opportunities that present themselves at this time, we are doing this great game a disservice," Broughton said

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