Rugby League International Federation defend eligibility rules as NZRL seek cut-off date
New Zealand Rugby League want adjustments to the eligibility rules that saw several players make a last-minute U-turn to play for Tonga at the World Cup, although the international governing body may not be so accommodating.
Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) chief executive David Collier has issued a staunch defence of its laws after Jason Taumalolo turned his back on the Kiwis the day before coach David Kidwell was due to name his squad.
Taumalolo was joined by Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Manu Ma'u and David Fusitu'a - the latter just an hour before the Kiwis' squad announcement - while Andrew Fifita withdrew from Australia to also link up with the Tongans.
That they were able to do so was due to the new international eligibility rules introduced last year, which allow players who qualify for more than one country to represent a tier two nation if they are not playing for either Australia, England or New Zealand.
Under the old rules, players with dual nationality would have been locked out of the World Cup if they missed selection from a country they had already represented.
With international rugby league struggling for depth, it was designed to help all countries field their strongest teams possible. Although, few ever envisaged a star player like Taumalolo, seen as the best forward in the game, picking a tier two nation over one of the big three.
The rules have been slammed as an embarrassment in some quarters but Collier said there were doing exactly what they were created for.
"After proper review and consultation the Board amended the eligibility rules in 2016 for international rugby league, to ensure the very best players in the world had the very best opportunity of playing in the elite world competitions," Collier said in a statement.
"At the same time the Board tightened the residence qualifications to five years to ensure that players could only qualify by birth or heritage in the years between a World Cup cycle."
The defections completely blindsided the Kiwis.
Kidwell and the selectors were hugely disappointed at the timing of the decisions as they scrambled to find replacements for their 24-man squad.
While supportive of the new eligibility rules, NZRL management have indicated that they will broach the idea of having a cut-off date further out from the World Cup where players have to confirm their allegiance to a particular country.
At the moment players are permitted to move between squads up until October 13 - two weeks before the start of the tournament - when the final teams are due to be announced.
"This is the first World Cup since the rule changes and maybe after the World Cup the international board will revisit," NZRL chief executive Alex Hayton said this week.
"There's an international board meeting coming up in November and it's certainly something we'll need to table to review after the World Cup.
"It doesn't necessarily need to go back to the way it was, I think it's just around an event like the World Cup there needs to be an earlier cut-off so it's clearer for everyone."
There is nothing stopping the players from putting their hands up for Kiwis selection after the World Cup and that is sure to be a major talking point when the rep season rolls around next year.
In an interview with Australia's Courier-Mail on Saturday, Taumalolo declined to the answer when asked if he intended to play for Kiwis in the future.
Earlier in the week, New Zealand convenor of selectors Tawera Nikau said that they were unlikely to shut the door on him or anyone else, although that would be assessed after the World Cup.