Gregor Paul 's Opinion

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Of genuine NZ concern

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Queensland coach Mal Meninga. Photo / Getty
Queensland coach Mal Meninga. Photo / Getty

In a strange way, New Zealanders should feel a little smug that Australian rugby league is quite so determined to pinch the best Kiwis.

No one should feel good that they actually manage it, but in a twist on Oscar Wilde's observation that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about; the only thing worse than being in demand in Australia is not being in demand.

Don't expect anyone over there to feel either shame or sympathy. Let's not forget the origins of that great nation: initially a penal colony, the convict theme has never died.

Stealing is in the blood and Queensland coach Mal Meninga really can't see that he's doing anything wrong.

He's there to find and pick the best players and the eligibility rules as they stand are as flimsy as a Quade Cooper tackle. Technically he's doing nothing wrong but technically US athlete Florence Griffith-Joyner - or Flo-Jo as she was better known - was clean. She never tested positive but she did die from a seizure at 38.

A similar fate possibly awaits international rugby league - this could be it entering the final throes.

That may not matter much as maybe it has been dead for years, if it were ever alive. Today's grand final will have all sorts of people not overly acquainted with the code watching with interest.

The same might not be true when the Kiwis clash with the Kangaroos later next month. It's not that no one is interested, it's just international rugby league has limited appeal what with Australia, New Zealand and England being the only teams that are any good.

If the calendar was robbed of the Anzac test, it is a stretch to imagine protests on the streets. Ditto the World Cup - it would be a shame but not disastrous for the code.

The real danger of Meninga's aggressive selection policy is that it runs the risk of damaging the credibility of State of Origin. The purity and intensity of that annual series is mind-boggling.

What will the impact be, though, of throwing in numerous players who are quite obviously New Zealanders and not Queenslanders?

A little piece of the series will be eroded and year by year the hype will be less, the feeling of it being State vs State and mate vs mate will be that bit harder to preserve and promote and within 10 years, maybe less, there will be empty seats at Origin.

If this seems like a long bow to draw, there are examples of similar declines. The Scottish rugby team, perhaps not quite an apple-for-apples comparison, is illustrative nonetheless of how impurities can contaminate and damage.

Rugby enjoyed an unprecedented surge of popularity after Scotland won the Grand Slam in 1990 but by the end of the decade, the sport was barely making a footprint.

At the root of the collapse was the decision to actively scour the world and select predominantly New Zealanders, but also Australian and South Africans, who had Scottish heritage and were therefore eligible.

It didn't take long for the public mood to darken: the nation would rather see half-baked Scots in the jersey than three-quarter-baked Kiwis, Australians and South Africans.

If the rugby was going to be dire, at least let it be Scottish in origin and flavour.

As it turned out, most of the locals were not only better at being Scottish, they were actually better at rugby, too, but by the time the policy had been ditched, it was too late.

The once faithful had disappeared to follow pursuits where the participants were if nothing else genuinely Scottish.

At some point, Queensland's iron-grip on Origin will be prised open, or even if it's not, the victories may start to ring hollow when there are men genuinely passionate about the Maroons unable to get into the jersey, being left out for men who are there because they were ultimately tempted by the $50,000 per game. The whole business will lose its appeal - that's kind of what happens when the mercenaries invade.

Nationality is a complex business in the free-wheeling modern world: populations are diverse and upwardly mobile and many households on both sides of the Tasman will feel they have a foot in both camps.

But the thing is, everyone knows, really, whether they are a New Zealander or an Aussie. Their heart more than their head will tell them and that's the danger for Meninga - he can win minds, but not everyone that commits to him will give him their heart.

- Herald on Sunday

Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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