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

NRL: Change lets players switch nations

Solomone Kata has represented Tonga but is now in the frame to play for the Kiwis after being named in the Four Nations train-on squad. Photo / Getty Images
Solomone Kata has represented Tonga but is now in the frame to play for the Kiwis after being named in the Four Nations train-on squad. Photo / Getty Images

International league is headed for one of the biggest shake-ups in the history of the sport.

A radical eligibility proposal - which will change the equation for the nations outside the big three of Australia, New Zealand and England - has been approved by the Rugby League International Federation.

The Herald on Sunday can reveal:

• Eligible players can nominate one tier one nation to represent and one tier two nation.

• Players can switch between their two countries multiple times within a World Cup cycle.

• There is no stand-down between a change of allegiance.

• Players of Polynesian heritage can play State of Origin but still be available to turn out for their native island country.

It's a big move. League has always had a chequered history with eligibility - mainly due to the professional base of the sport being limited to two countries - but it feels like this is the best solution so far.

It's not perfect, but it's pragmatic. It will stop any unnecessary lockout of players from international football, as happened in the past when Polynesian players (in particular) had represented a major nation and then were not selected for the next campaign. It will also stop the major nations - intentionally or otherwise - hoarding the best talent.

It means the likes of Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Papua New Guinea can field their best possible line-ups. Warriors utility Tui Lolohea and Roosters second-rower Sio Siua Taukeiaho starred for Tonga in their 2015 Pacific test match against Samoa, then were selected for the Kiwis tour of England last November. That made them unavailable for Tonga in May, even though the duo had not been selected for the Kiwis' Anzac test on the same weekend.

It will also take some of the heartache and angst away for players like Solomone Kata and David Fusitua, who have played for Tonga in the past but are currently in the Kiwis train-on squad for the Four Nations. In the past there has been considerable pressure on some players, torn between the wishes of their families and their personal aspirations.

Anthony Milford was another example. He turned down the opportunity to play for Samoa earlier this year because of his ambitions to play for Queensland, and eventually the Kangaroos. Now the two are no longer mutually exclusive. There are no changes to the specific Origin eligibility laws but opting to chase the Origin riches no longer rules players out of representing their Pacific heritage.

However, the status quo remains for Origin-eligible New Zealanders (like Kieran Foran or Jason Taumalolo); they won't be eligible for the interstate extravaganza once they represent the Kiwis.

Players will be able to make multiple changes of allegiance during a cycle, but only up and down the pyramid. There is no option to switch between the big three, as in the farcical Tonie Carroll example.

"In the past, the top three nations have monopolised the talent," said the NRL's international development manager Tas Baitieri. "The island nations, in particular, haven't been able to pick their possible teams."

Even minnows could benefit. There are 10 current NRL players with Serbian heritage, including Manly's Trbojevic brothers, who could help Serbia's qualification attempt for the 2017 World Cup.

"We welcome the changes," said 2017 World Cup CEO Andrew Hill. "They will allow more elite players to play and also help bridge the gap between the top three nations and the next tier."

- Herald on Sunday

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