Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: It's Origin Mal-practice

The relentless recruitment of Queensland coach Mal Meninga threatens international league, writes Michael Burgess.

International league is is at risk, with players changing allegiance thinning the ranks of potential Kiwis.
Photo / Getty Images
International league is is at risk, with players changing allegiance thinning the ranks of potential Kiwis. Photo / Getty Images

In about two decades from now, when the obituaries for international rugby league are being written, the name Mal Meninga will surely feature prominently.

He was a legend of the international game, going on a record four Kangaroo tours of Great Britain, but he looks a key figure in its demise.

This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Imagine the situation a decade from now. Cases like James 'Turncoat' Tamou, Ben Te'o and Josh Papalii won't be the exceptions, they will become the norms. Every year, more Kiwis cross the Tasman to try their luck in the NRL and they are departing at increasingly younger ages.

They enter the Australian junior system and the tug of war begins. Benji Marshall and Kieran Foran turned their backs on the green and gold but it is harder to see future prodigies doing the same.

"We're all worried about the future of the international game," says Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney. "No one knows where it's heading. Kids go to Australia at younger ages, sometimes with their families, and it is tough for us to compete with Origin."

"You wonder where it will stop," says NZRL high performance manager Tony Kemp.

"League is heading towards an AFL model and Kiwis playing in Origin will just erode the fabric of international football. The international game is under threat and for our best Kiwi kids, the decisions will become harder. It will become more difficult to retain Kiwi hearts. There is a danger that Origin will take the best players while we get the leftovers."

Unfortunately - and this will be one of his greatest legacies - much of this has been driven by Meninga. The Queensland coach has been the greatest instigator of change, aggressively targeting young players. Rules regarding Origin eligibility haven't changed - but the approach has.

Any promising NRL player with even a remote Queensland link is marked on Meninga's hit list and he doesn't give up, even when the player concerned indicates (as with Papalii) they have sided with the Kiwis.

"I'm trying to get my claws into him to be a Queenslander but he won't budge at the moment," Meninga said of Papalii earlier this year.

"I've been into him for about 12 months and he won't change his mind. Every time I get an opportunity, I mention it to him, and every opportunity I have mentioned it to him, he has always shaken his head saying, 'no, I'm available for New Zealand'."

It's not just Kiwis. Meninga seemed affronted last November when English-born Broncos centre Jack Reed opted to represent Great Britain.

"Jack Reed should be playing for Queensland!!" Meninga posted on his Facebook page at the time. He told the Courier Mail that "it is disappointing [to lose players like Josh Hoffman, Gerard Beale and Reed] as it is my belief that if you invest all your time, energy and money to a junior coming through the club system here in Australia, they should automatically be involved in Queensland or NSW".

His obsession partly reflects circumstances; he is the first full-time coach in Queensland's history and has to justify his 12-month employment for a three game series.

But Meninga has always been something of a contradiction. He was a fantastic servant and promoter of the sport through a glittering career but was also handsomely rewarded. His selection for a historic fourth Kangaroo tour in 1994 (and second as captain) was as much about sentiment and past deeds as it was about form. He was no longer at the peak of his powers but the Australian Rugby League rewarded him with a fourth tour. Their payback? Little over a year later, in the midst of the ugly Superleague war, Meninga was quick to side with the News Limited organisation that tried to take over the game, rejecting the governing body.

He had been one of the highest paid players in the sport, captained his country 23 times and been honoured with the Order of Australia but when asked why he deserted the ARL famously answered: "What's rugby league ever done for me?"

Meninga is starting to resemble Augustus Gloop, the greedy kid in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Sam Kasiano, who is the latest in the tug of year, played just one year of junior league in the Sunshine State but Meninga has been chasing him for an age.

"Mal seems to have no boundaries," says Kemp. "He would grab an Irishman having a coffee on the Gold Coast if it suited his plans."

Meninga holds most of the aces. A proposal to increase Origin match fees to A$50,000 ($65,000) a game looks sure to be accepted. That's 10 times the sum paid for test matches.

As well as the lure of the lucre, the new Junior Origin series, which will start in 2013, could be another foot on the throat for international league. It will be a mechanism for NSW and Queensland to lock in the best junior players, whether they eventually pick them or not, and further weaken the Kiwi cause.

It is a vicious circle. To be competitive, the Kiwis need their best players but to be attractive to the best young talent, they need to be competitive. Though Origin is a huge draw, international rugby league can also be compelling. Suncorp Stadium was a sell-out for the 2006 Anzac test, as the Australian crowds realised they were in for a contest, six months after the Kiwis' famous 2005 Tri Nations win. The 2008 World Cup and 2010 Four Nations finals also drew huge crowds.

If the current pattern continues, all the best league talent will congregate in Australia and the international game - already on shaky ground - will wither and die, especially when matched with the global reach and opportunities afforded by rugby union.

State of Origin is fast becoming an All Star game and is much less about your background. It was noticeable this year that Channel Nine removed the pre-game feature where players introduce themselves and their junior club. Some bright spark must have realised that hearing "James Tamou, Levin Knights" or "Ben Te'o, Hibiscus Coast Raiders" would be an unpalatable reminder to Australian audiences.

Still, Meninga doesn't see - or doesn't want to see - the implications of what he is creating.

"Our code's future depends on teams like Queensland that display the traits and humility that rugby league should be praising not breaking down," he said last year. "We are not interested in dynasties, we are concerned with leaving a legacy. Legacies are about leaving the game in a better position than it was before. That is our goal, our mantra."

- Herald on Sunday

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