Joseph Suaalii’s decision to choose Samoa over the Kangaroos has sparked a fierce debate on the eligibility rules for both Origin and international teams ahead of the World Cup.
Suaalii followed a number of NRL stars who have chosen to represent their tier two heritage nation at the World Cup despite being eligible to play State of Origin.
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga called for an overhaul of the eligibility rules with the current system causing uncertainty among players over where their allegiances sit.
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“I’m not disappointed, but the fact is we need to have a look at how we clean it all up and the eligibility rules,” Meninga said.
“But I’m happy for them. If they make a decision that they want to play for their ancestral nations that is good for me.
“I don’t want them going away in the green and gold and second guessing and doubting themselves whether they actually want to be here or be with another footy team.
“I’m really comfortable in the fact that the people we pick want to be there. The people who we pick want to put the green and gold jersey on and will give a great account of themselves playing for their nation.
“That’s the type of person we want and that is one of the first criteria of picking a national team is that they want to be there and play for their country.
“I’m happy but it does get messy when players ring up and they have indicated they want to play for Australia and then all of a sudden at the last moment they want to play for their ancestral nation and they are not quite sure.
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“I’m glad they did ring me up because they have obviously been unsure and I don’t want anyone unsure playing for Australia.”
Meninga’s comments and Suaalii’s defection sparked a furious debate on NRL 360.
Paul Kent agreed with Meninga that the international game needs players totally committed to the jersey they want to represent, but believes players shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose when it suits them.
“I applaud what Mal said, I think he is spot on,” Kent said on NRL 360.
“You want patriots not mercenaries. They will cop the money to play Origin, but they don’t want to play for Australia.”
However, Phil Rothfield believes the players should be commended for playing for tier two nations for very little financial reward.
“Mercenaries is not the right word,” Rothfield said.
“They are playing for their countries for free down the back of a plane in cattle class sharing rooms.”
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However, Kent believes the eligibility rules are no longer up to date with the times.
“They don’t get paid what the Australians get paid I agree with that, but the fact is the competition is already about 50 per cent Polynesian,” Kent said.
“So the days when these archaic rules were drawn up about tier one and tier two nations and all this was drawn up was back when actually five per cent of the country was from Polynesian heritage in the Australian Rugby League.
“The circumstances have changed. I applaud what these guys are doing playing for Samoa and Tonga, but you can’t have it both ways.
“You can’t sit there and declare yourself to play for NSW and Queensland and not play for Australia.”
Debate then turned to the potential of hurting the Origin product.
“That kills Origin,” Rothfield said.
“It doesn’t kill Origin,” Kent fired back.
“It either kills Origin or it kills the Island nations,” Brent Read interjected.
“You are going to kill one because you make them make a choice.”
Kent warned the day will come when no players who opt to play for the Kangaroos will be in the Origin teams.
“So what happens when the day comes that the NSW side runs out and there is seven Samoans and six Tongans in the side and the Queensland team comes out and there is seven Samoans and six Tongans in their side,” Kent said.
“And no Australian eligible players are making Origin. Half the competition is Polynesian players.
“Origin is supposed to be the best 34 players from NSW and Queensland.”
“But a lot of these Samoan boys are born in NSW,” Rothfield said.
“Declare yourself for Australia then,” Kent said.
“They have got family ties,” Rothfield answered.
“Then declare yourself for Samoa,” Kent shot back.
“You can’t have both.”
“Well under the current system you can,” Read said.
However, Meninga was also criticised for not doing more to lure Suaalii and other players to play for Australia as Samoa and Tonga did.
“I think it is real disappointing for Australia and I think it is a real oversight that they have allowed it to happen,” Kent said of Suaalii’s decision.
“I think Mal Meninga should have got on the phone and made sure that he was locked in.
“Unfortunately that has happened and he has gone to Samoa, so off he goes.”
However, Rothfield believes it is a win for international rugby league that Suaalii will play for Samoa.
“It is great for the international game,” Rothfield said.
“I grew up as a kid and there was Australia, New Zealand, France and England. There was only four teams and then the French fell away.
“The Poms have been very ordinary and we needed for an international game for new nations to emerge and Tonga and Samoa have added so much.”
“They have emerged,” Kent interjected.
“They have only emerged because players have put money aside, business class seats aside. Single hotel rooms aside to play for their heritage and I love it.”
Read believes Meninga calling players would not have made a difference.
“I don’t think there was anything Mal could have done,” Read said.
“I think Joseph Suaalii sat down with his family after the season was over with the Roosters and had a discussion with them.
“He has got grandparents in Samoa. He has got close ties to the Samoan community and I don’t think Mal could have swayed him.
“Mal had him on his radar. He would have been picked in the Prime Minister’s team, but he had a shoulder problem.”
Kent believes former Australian coach the late Bob Fulton would never have allowed Suaalii to defect.
“This wouldn’t have happened if Bozo (Bob Fulton) was coach,” Kent said.
“With due respect it was a different time,” Read fired back.
“I don’t care,” Kent hit back.
“It is a different time, but he would have been on the phone making sure people were committed and if they had any concerns he would make sure he allayed those concerns.
“That is what winning is about.”
Rothfield was critical of Meninga for not doing more to entice players to play for Australia.
“I think Mal has fallen over here in not being more proactive in ringing players and different clubs to check on availability and to have a chat to these guys about wearing a green and gold jersey,” Rothfield said.
“The reason he has backed off and hasn’t done that is because Michael Maguire has been doing it for New Zealand and one Western Sydney club got particularly upset about it, that they are fighting to make the grand final and Madge was saying, to play for New Zealand I need to see a bit more of this and that.”
Kent believes if Meninga had done more then Australia may have more players to choose from.
“If Mal had done that with Suaalii and if he had done that with Victor Radley he might be playing for Australia too,” Kent said.
However Read and Braith Anasta believe players shouldn’t need to be enticed to play for their country.
“Should Mal have to sell the Australian jersey to players?” Read asked.
“I agree,” Anasta said.
“There is a flip side to this. If Mal had rang Suaalii and had a good conversation about what it means to play for Australia, which he may have.
“But on the flip side if you are a player that doesn’t want to wear the green and gold. If you haven’t grown up watching Australia and say, that is what I want to do. That’s my dream.
“If you are going to knock that jersey back, you don’t want him in the jersey.”
Kent returned to his argument that players choose to play Origin before turning their back on Australia.
“OK, but it is all right to have the dream to play for NSW?” Kent asked.
“They can play for NSW and then go play for Samoa.”
“That is the rules because you can do both,” Read said.
“I can’t control the kid’s dream,” Anasta said.
Rothfield was adamant that Suaalii playing for Samoa is good for the game.
“The bottom line is I’m glad he is playing for them,” Rothfield said.
“They will be a must watch football team.”
“I don’t subscribe to that,” Kent said.
“Of course they will be (a must watch team). They are a tremendous chance.
“New Zealand are clear favourites to win the World Cup as they should be when you go through the roster.”
Kent clarified the eligibility rules and called for Tonga and Samoa to be reclassified as tier one nations.
“In World Cup years to help strengthen the World Cup you are allowed to play for a tier two nation of heritage, which in his case is Samoa,” Kent said.
“You are allowed to play for a heritage nation in World Cup years and then come back and commit to Australia or New Zealand.
“That said, I have spoken to some people at the World Cup and this needs to happen. Samoa and Tonga are so strong they seriously need to be considered as tier one nations. They are no longer tier two nations.”
However, Read warned if players are forced to choose it could weaken Tonga and Samoa to the point they are not tier one nations.
“But they are only strong because they are tier two nations,” Read said.
“It is because players like Suaalii, Papalii and Paulo play for them because they know they can play for them.
“If you make them a tier one nation they can’t.”
But Kent had little sympathy and called on players to prove how committed they are to the Samoan and Tongan jerseys by making them choose between Origin and their international preference.
“There are six players in that Samoa side who played Origin this year,” Kent said.
“So maybe they will commit to Samoa if it means they can’t play Origin. If it means everything you are telling me it means to these people.
“You strengthen Origin then because you reinvest in what Origin is. It is about playing for NSW and Queensland. Not playing because you want to play Origin. That’s what gets lost in all this.”
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