NZRL vows to avoid flip-flops

BY STEVE KILGALLON
Last updated 12:44 19/09/2010

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After suffering a week of weak-willed Manly wing Tony Williams' floundering over his deeply-suppressed sense of national allegiance, New Zealand will adopt an unofficial policy of refusing to select nation-hopping players who are old enough to know better.

But whether that becomes one of the few formal rules in the unregulated world of international rugby league depends on hard-headed pragmatism: in truth, whether the NZRL believes it now has enough decent players available to cast aside future flip-floppers who demonstrate the international loyalty of dynamite Parramatta prop Fuifui Moimoi.

NZRL boss Jim Doyle told the Sunday Star-Times the Williams farrago had led selectors and coach Stephen Kearney to decide that in future, they wouldn't re-select players who had jumped ship from the Kiwis after the age of 23 and then wanted to return. They would happily accept those who played for an island nation as a young player, then graduated to the Kiwis, and those whose Kiwi career was over and wanted to play for an island in the twilight of their career. But someone such as Moimoi (Tonga 2006, New Zealand 2007, Tonga 2008, New Zealand 2009, and indeed, American Samoa in 2000) would, it seems, be treated far less benevolently.

Having been called into Australia's Prime Ministers XIII to play Papua New Guinea (an effective test trial), Williams even floated the suggestion he could play for the PM's team and still be a Kiwi. Technically, he was right. Fortun- ately, the NZRL rejected that idea.

The Star- Times can also reveal Warriors backrower Ukuma Ta'ai, also in the original 43-man Kiwis train-on squad despite representing Tonga in 2009, has also U-turned and will stick with Mate Ma'a Tonga.

Another potential flashpoint, over selections for next month's Junior Kiwis-Junior Kangaroos series has been avoided with Australia and New Zealand agreeing to share squad lists before announcing them. Despite all being sounded out for their allegiances, they still found a player who appeared on both - who after consideration opted for the Kiwis.

Unsurprising, given the quiet battleground in Australia, centred particularly south-western Sydney, where the Australian Rugby League is racing to lock in expat Kiwi kids, mostly of island descent, before New Zealand becomes aware of them. "Roots" camps earlier this year, where players such as Ruben Wiki spoke of what it meant to be a Kiwi, were far from a PR exercise but a canny attempt by the NZRL to capture those hearts and minds.

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Last week, as Williams' initial selection emerged and Newcastle wing Akuila Uate pleaded poverty to be allowed to switch from Fiji to Australia, an infuriated fan forwarded me an email he'd received from British RFL chair Richard Lewis.

Lewis told him: "You may be surprised to know that I completely agree with you - the international eligibility rules are totally wrong.

"I . . . have tried on numerous occasions to get the rules changed at international board level. We have failed because Australia [in particular] and New Zealand have an advantage by keeping the rules as they are, so changes are constantly filibustered out."

Lewis was right. Until recent changes, the Rugby League International Federation was set up with Britain, New Zealand and Australia holding a vote apiece. The British suspicion has long been that the NZRL is a "client nation" of the Australians. To an extent, they're right, given the NRL pushes a substantial development grant to the NZRL every year.

And for both countries, lax rules made sense. It meant they could allow rising players to represent island nations, keeping the game alive in the Pacific and preventing allegations of stockpiling talent because they could cherrypick the best at any time.

Doyle, who has been with the NZRL only a year, admits Lewis is right. "I can't speak for the past, but if I was on that board a number of years ago and looked at the depth of talent I had available, I would want as much flexibility as possible," he said. "Nowadays, the level of talent we have got available means we might not need that flexibility. Years ago they would have 19 on a list and be stretching to add three or four to make up a squad. Now we have 40 on a list and it changes the dynamic a bit."

A 'one nation for life' rule only hurts the little guys, just as it has in rugby union, where since the rule was introduced, not a single player wanted by the top-tier nations has opted for a tier-two country.

But the real flaw in league's rules is allowing a nationality change if a player serves a two-year stand down or waits until after the next world cup (whichever is sooner), and permitting players to jump even quicker if they seek and receive special federation approval.

It means it was legitimate for Jarryd Hayne to play for Fiji at the 2008 cup and Australia in 2009, but not for Uate to play for Fiji in 2009 and Australia in 2010: unless the RLIF says he can, effectively allowing Australasian administrators to arbitrarily bend the rules to suit.

- Sunday Star Times

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