Kiwis defecting to Tonga for World Cup a sign of winds of change for rugby league
OPINION: Rugby league has taken quite a few important strides this year – although very few of them happened in the NRL.
The previously lopsided Super League suddenly opened right up, with little Castleford topping the table for the first time in their 91-year-history and also-rans such as Wakefield and Salford finishing ahead of mighty Wigan.
Castleford play Leeds this Saturday night (Sunday morning NZ time) in the Old Trafford grand final.
Then there was the advent of the first-ever trans-Atlantic pro sports team, the Toronto Wolfpack, who drew the biggest crowd of any in the British game's three divisions when they hosted their final home game last month.
Now we look like having teams in Hamilton, Ontario, and New York City within three years. Rugby league has always had the advantage of being much smaller and more malleable than rugby union while being able to legitimately ride its big brother's IP – by virtue of using half its name!
It's finally taking advantage of this – 2017 also saw the 2025 World Cup awarded to the US and Canada. Yes, awarded. As in, it is going to be there – in some of the most famous cities and stadia in the world.
When Colin Love first invited a bunch of non-league-playing countries to the World Sevens could any of us have imagined this? Yes, imagined … but not actually think we'd live to see it.
But to most Australian fans the changes taking place in terms of ambition and outlook appear distant and uninteresting. Who's Cooper Cronk going to play for next year, right?
That's why the decisions of Jason Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita, Manu Ma'u, David Fusita and Sio Siua Taukeiaho to turn their backs on New Zealand and Australia respectively in favour of Tonga are so significant. They give the game's changing set of values a human face; they show rank-and-file NRL fans that progress really is being made.
Discord doesn't care how pure or otherwise their motivations are. So far, they seem reasonably altruistic; the players are giving up healthy pay packets for $30-a-day stipends. Rather than a Kiwi rebellion, it looks like a Tongan conspiracy. A conspiracy to win the World Cup.
One wonders why Kenny Bromwich is playing for New Zealand if his brother's ban was so outrageous, which was reported as the main reason for Taumalolo's decision.
And please, don't tell us about guys not giving New Zealand notice; guys have been in training with developing nations for previous world cups when they got the call from Australia or New Zealand and promptly jumped camps. The big three have been picking the eyes out of other sides with little or no notice for years.
But the reason we have this free gangway rule, that allows players to represent a tier-two country and a tier-one nation concurrently, is that we didn't think it would ever happen in reverse. We expected players to be more interested in the bright lights and fat pay cheques of the big three than in representing their heritage.
For whatever reason, Taumalolo and Fifita have proved us wrong. In a weird sort of way, they'll embolden those who don't like the rule from which they benefit.
Those of us who pushed for the gangway clause to be introduced and have been defending it ever since point to the economic inequalities between teams three and four down. Well it didn't matter to Taumalolo, Fifita, Ma'u, Fusitua and Taukeaho.
So do we need it?
Of course we do. As Italy coach Cameron Ciraldo said on Thursday, most players – like James Tedesco – would not commit to a tier-two country if it was going to damage their chances of representing Australia, New Zealand or England.
One day, maybe they will – when everyone is paid the same. We've made strides this week but we're not even in the same postcode as our destination.
And as World Cup CEO Andrew Hill said, also on Thursday, we have the RLPA player of the year representing Italy, the world's best forward turning out for Tonga and the most recognisable rugby league player in the world playing for Fiji. It's going to be an intriguing spring.
If rugby league can finally break out of its provincial hovel, if international competition realises its potential over the next two months and new clubs fan out over North America over the next two years, the Sydney club bosses and northern English overlords who've been running things for generations will have no choice but to sit back and watch on helplessly.
Just like Mal Meninga and David Kidwell have over the past 48 hours.