League benefits in players following heritage
OPINION: Stop the bellyaching about New Zealand-born James Tamou's decision to play for the Kangaroos not the Kiwis.
Brad Thorn – now rightly regarded a rugby legend in New Zealand – did the same thing in 1997 when playing for the Brisbane Broncos.
Thorn was born in Mosgiel and dreamed of being an All Black. But he moved to Queensland with his family as a nipper and switched his sporting passion to rugby league.
The big man was snapped up by the Brisbane Broncos and played State of Origin footie and then chose Australia over New Zealand in the Super League international season.
He was mercilessly sledged by Kiwis fullback Matthew Ridge, who ribbed him about making public his desire to be an All Black. Ridge, a cross-code convert in the opposite direction, must have been gobsmacked when Thorn's dream became a reality in 2003 after turning down the All Black jumper in 2001, his first season as a Crusader.
Thorn boomeranged back to the Broncos for a couple of seasons and played State of Origin again before returning to the Crusaders and the All Blacks fold.
Time's a great healer. Thorn went from "villain" in 1997 to hero in 2011 when he played a vital part in the All Blacks winning their first Rugby World Cup crown for 24 years.
Tamou's case is a little different because, unlike Thorn, he was a Junior Kiwi and a New Zealand Maori representative. The North Queensland Cowboys prop also claimed as recently as this month that he wanted to wear the Kiwis jersey.
But he's been seduced by the prospect of a New South Wales State of Origin jumper. Australian Rugby League rules decree only players committed to representing Australia can play in the State of Origin series.
Who can blame a Kiwi kid growing up in Australia wanting to play State of Origin footy? One day soon, someone will challenge the archaic rule that prevents a person growing up in Australia from representing their state because they identify with their long, New Zealand lineage and prefer to play test football for the Kiwis. League fans here can call Tamou a traitor if they like. But they have short memories.
New Zealand rugby league has profited in the past from Australians pulling on a Kiwis jumper. Former Warriors fullback Brent Webb helped the New Zealanders win the 2005 Tri-Nations final against his homeland. He would have been in the 2008 World Cup winning squad but for injury.
Cairns-born Webb qualified for the Kiwis because he'd lived in Auckland for three years. He now lives in Leeds.
He copped an expletive-laden spray from Willie Mason – an Auckland-born Lake Macquarie-raised prop who chose the Kangaroos over the Kiwis – in a 2006 Tri-Nations test. Mason claimed to be incensed at watching Webb, an indigenous Australia, perform the haka. What goes around, comes around. Mason had his eye socket fractured after a shoulder charge from Kiwis enforcer David Kidwell in the same match.
Then there was the "Grannygate" fiasco.
Warriors utility Nathan Fien dug up a Kiwi grandmother, which made him instantly eligible, under International Rugby League Federation rules, to represent New Zealand. But after closer scrutiny, it was revealed Fien's grandmother wasn't born in New Zealand after all, but his great granny was.
Don't forget too that the current Kiwis squad includes Frank Pritchard, who played in that World Cup final triumph over the Australia yet turned down a Four Nations berth last year after expressing his desire to represent Samoa at the 2013 World Cup.
International eligibility is a thorny issue (no pun intended) for the rugby league code. Bigger sports, football for example, can assert that once players have represented one nation they are ineligible for another.
Rugby league doesn't have that luxury. It's commonplace for former Kiwis or Kangaroos with Pacific Island heritage to turn out for Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands. And long may it remain so. Otherwise, the Rugby League World Cup – a stunning success in Australia in 2008 – would be a three-team affair.
The International Rugby Board should institute a similar policy allowing ex-All Blacks and Wallabies to play for their Pacific heritage unions. It will never happen, of course, because it would make Samoa, Fiji and Tonga stronger, and the British and Irish unions would never stand for that.
Back to James Tamou. He's bound to be smashed to the Eden Park turf with extra venom on Friday night – probably by Pritchard. But, let's stop whipping up a frenzy of trans-Tasman zenophobia or risk being labelled hypocrites.
Remember, when we're pointing the finger, there's always three fingers pointing back.
- © Fairfax NZ News