Tony Smith: Rugby league's eligibility rules must be changed after Jason Taumalolo flip-flop

Jason Taumalolo will have played for two nations - New Zealand and Tonga - in the same year.

Jason Taumalolo will have played for two nations - New Zealand and Tonga - in the same year.

OPINION: Country-hopping Cowboy Jason Taumalolo's snubbing of the Kiwis should be a red light for rugby league to tighten its farcical international eligibility rules.

The laissez faire leaguies allow players to switch their allegiance at a whim - Taumalolo played for the Kiwis in the Anzac test in May but will turn out for Tonga at November's Rugby League World Cup alongside Andrew Fifita, who played against him for the Kangaroos.

What other serious sport would allow players to represent two different nations in the same year?

Andrew Fifita playing for the Australia against the Kiwis in May, 2017. He'll be turning out for Tonga six months later.
Mark Nolan

Andrew Fifita playing for the Australia against the Kiwis in May, 2017. He'll be turning out for Tonga six months later.

No-one denies international rugby league could do with a boost. It's been the NRL's poor, second cousin far too long.

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The Rugby League World Cup was around some 27 years before rugby union's bosses put down their gin tumblers and launched their own.

Yet, in 63 years, just three countries have won the trophy with Australia taking 10 of the 14 titles.

The rise of Pasifika players in the NRL has had a positive spinoff for the long-neglected international game.

The Tongans almost tipped over the Kiwis at the 1995 tournament. Fiji were semifinalists at the last two editions in 2008 and 2013. Samoa are no slouches.

There's nothing wrong with players born in New Zealand or Australia opting to play for the Pacific Island nations as a mark of respect for their heritage.

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But, should they be able to swap, willy nilly? 

The world's biggest sports - football and basketball - have strict rules preventing flip flops.

Once a footballer has turned out in a senior international, he or she is aligned to that nation for life. Basketball requires players with dual eligibility to make a call at 18. FIBA, the world basketball governing body, states the choice is then "irrevocable".

If rugby league had adopted the football criteria, Taumalolo would never have played for the Kiwis or Fifita for Australia. Both made their test debuts for Tonga. Like other New Zealand or Australian-born Pasifika players, they have used their family's nations as a springboard to Kiwis and Kangaroos selection, where financial rewards - and the chances of winning - are greater.

League needs a a fairer system. It should turn to the saner, middle ground occupied by sports with "stand-down" periods for country hoppers.

Cricket and netball have a four-year stand-down while hockey allows players to change countries after three years - provided nationality criteria are met.

Cricket requires a player seeking for play for any nation other than the land of their birth to either be a citizen or a permanent resident and to have resided in the country for a minimum of 183 days in each of the preceding four years.

The residency requirement wouldn't work in rugby league - the Kiwis, England and all the island nations would struggle to field full-strength squads with so many men plying their trade in the NRL for nine months.

A four-year stand down period could be a little long.  As one of the toughest collision sports, a leaguie's longevity pales alongside a cricketer's or netballer's -  or even a rugby union type (given the current propensity for players to eke every last cent from their bodies in softer competitions).

But a two or three-year hiatus would be practical - and sensible.

If that's too big a leap for league's free market folk, the International Rugby League Federation could insist on players confirming their allegiance a year out from each World Cup. They would then only be available to another nation if they failed to be selected for their first-choice.

Until then, it's hard to take a tournament seriously which allows blokes to run around in a different jumper to the one worn six months before.

Rugby union's rule could also do with a tweak.

As it stands, a single-cap All Black is, shamefully, unable to turn out for Samoa, Fiji or Tonga.

That's because the bigger nations of World Rugby have a vested interest in keeping a closed shop which has seen just four nations win the World Cp.

The rugby rule has hindered, rather than helped, the World Cup. 

How much better would that tournament - where upsets are rare - be if the Pacific Island nations could call on native players discarded by the All Blacks, Australia, England or France?

It's risible that a Kiwi can represent Japan, yet a Pacific Island born player, who once got a token three minutes off the bench for the All Blacks, can never play for his homeland.

Rugby - union and league - are too small to ape football's scorched earth stance.

But open slather eligibility isn't the answer.





 - Stuff


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