Michael Burgess

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

NRL: Player poaching frustrates Kiwis

Sam Kasiano is in demand on both sides of the Tasman.
Photo / Getty Images
Sam Kasiano is in demand on both sides of the Tasman. Photo / Getty Images

Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney admits to frustration and disappointment over Josh Papalii's defection and Sam Kasiano's possible switch but the New Zealand Rugby League are powerless to stem the tide.

Kasiano, who is eligible for both transtasman nations and is being chased by Queensland despite only spending a year in the state, is expected to reveal his allegiance after tonight's grand final.

Papalii had repeatedly pledged his New Zealand allegiance over the past six months, after playing for the Junior Kiwis and being involved in several New Zealand league camps. But he last week announced his future lay with Queensland and Bulldogs prop Kasiano could be the next to follow him.

"It is frustrating," says Kearney, "when you work hard to build a programme and pathways for young Kiwis in the NYC and NRL. We have put a bit of time into [Papalii] so it is disappointing. But if someone gets offered the prospect of Origin, it can be hard for us to compete with. We would love to have Sam available for the Kiwis but that is up to him."
Kearney is philosophical, despite the fact he has seen James Tamou, Papalii and Ben Te'o cross to the other side in the last six months.

"We can't keep all the players and Josh going opens up an opportunity for someone like Jason Taumalolo," says Kearney. "We need to focus on what we are trying to achieve and we would rather have someone with a sense of pride in the Kiwis jersey rather than someone who is a bit uncertain. Players always get replaced and talent gets regenerated. People were saying the same thing when Sonny Bill [Williams] left but others have come along."

NZRL manager high performance Tony Kemp senses the growing disquiet over switches won't be confined to this side of the Tasman.

"If I was an Australian, I would start to wonder where it all ends," says Kemp. "After a while, their players and fans can't be happy with seeing their [state and national] teams full of Kiwis. At the moment, it seems like Origin takes precedent over logic. Who knows if he will use them all but someone like Meninga is gathering a great holding pen at the moment."

They may seem a mess but league's eligibility rules aren't too dissimilar to other major sports - in principle, the criteria are sound. Players either have to be a citizen of a country, have parents or grandparents from a country or have qualified for a country through three years of residency.

"I think you could compare those rules to most sports," Rugby League International Federation chairman Scott Carter told the Herald on Sunday earlier this year. "Eligibility still comes down to a player's right to choose. League has two main competitions [in Australia and Britain] that naturally draw talent from a lot of countries. The reality is no one will commute from Tonga to Leeds or Christchurch to Brisbane, so it's natural players will clock up a lot of time in those two countries and [the Kangaroos and Lions] will have access to a strong talent pool."

Unless they sign with the Warriors, almost all the top Kiwi talent will be in Australia by the age of 17 or 18 and in many cases significantly earlier. It means they have fulfilled the residency criterion by the time they graduate from the Toyota Cup and hit prominence in the NRL.

The Australian Rugby League Commission is charged with finding a solution to the eligibility dilemma. Wayne Bennett has been engaged and the current proposal is that a player must have spent 50 per cent of his life in either New South Wales or Queensland, which has gained the support of arguably the greatest player in the game.

"There's no higher honour than representing your country, no matter what the sport," said Johnathan Thurston. "There needs to be a massive overhaul because we don't want test football to go by the wayside because Origin offers two or three times more money than what test footballers get. There needs to be some changes to the rules. If you have been here for, say, 75 per cent of your life, you should be allowed to play Origin and [for] Australia."

It would mean that Papalii was eligible but Tamou, Te'o and Kasiano would not be able to line up in the interstate series. Kemp says such a rule would be a good start but doesn't fix the problem.

"We need to encourage better decision-making based on succinct pathways," says Kemp. "That way, kids would make quality decisions because they would be choosing between similar scenarios."

The NZRL has made improvements in that area, with national under-16 and under-18s competitions and Kiwi 'roots' camps but doesn't have the financial muscle to compete with Australia, NSW and Queensland, something Kemp feels the NRL is obligated to rectify.

"It is a billion dollar sport now and New Zealand currently supplies about 30 per cent of players in the [NRL and NYC] competition," says Kemp. "It's time for the NRL to give something back. They need to look at the pathways and put money back into the national bodies."

- Herald on Sunday

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