League: Eligibility rules make a mockery of the game

By Tyson Otto

Jarryd Hayne could in future represent both Australia and Fiji in league. Photo / Getty
Jarryd Hayne could in future represent both Australia and Fiji in league. Photo / Getty

International rugby league has just created a monster.

Dramatic changes to the game's international eligibility rules have turned the international theatre or rugby league into a farce.

Under new rules being proposed by the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF), players not selected for the so-called tier-one nations, Australia, New Zealand and England, will be free to play for developing league countries. It means the likes of Jarryd Hayne and Anthony Milford could each play State of Origin next year, before being selected to play for Fiji and Samoa respectively at the end-of-season World Cup. And then backflip again to play for Australia.

Following recent eligibility circuses, including Semi Radradra's defection from Fiji to Australia, the game has been crying out for clearer and stricter eligibility rules.

Instead the international game's governing body has announced a further loosening of eligibility criteria plunging the game deeper into a confused grey area.

The balance between making developing nations competitive and the integrity of international competition has become completely skewed.

It's a joke.

It's a move designed to strengthen developing nations, including Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea by giving NRL stars more incentive to play for the so-called second-tier national teams - without jeopardising their ambitions to play State of Origin or for the Kangaroos or Kiwis.

What it actually does is cheapen the jerseys of those developing nations and sets up a dangerous precedent of second-tier nations being used as a nursery for international talent before players prove themselves good enough to earn selection for Australia, New Zealand or England.

After the success of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup in England, the RLIF's bungle can be understood, but not excused.

The 2013 tournament in England, Wales, France and Ireland set records for match attendance and group stage television ratings.

There was also the biggest crowd ever assembled to watch a rugby league Test match in the tournament's final when Australia beat New Zealand at Old Trafford in front of 74,468.

Hailed a success because of the competitiveness of teams including semi-finalists Scotland, United States, Samoa and Fiji, the tournament owed a lot to players happy to turn their cloaks for a brief stint with a second country.

Italy fielded NRL stars, including Anthony Minichiello, James Tedesco and Kade Snowden.

Samoa fielded NRL stars, including Anthony Milford, Joseph Leilua and Tim Lafai.

Tonga fielded NRL stars, including Jason Taumalolo, Konrad Hurrell and Daniel Tupou.

The USA even - inexplicably - got Joseph Paulo and Junior Paulo onto their playing list.

The eligibility rules pushed the international game's credibility to the limit without breaking it.

The new rules simply push it that little bit further to breaking point.

In any truly international sport around the globe, pride in the jumper and the honour of representing your country is the game's greatest allure.

Players willing to push themselves or sacrifice their bodies for their flag so regularly creates the ultimate spectacle.

Sadly, if we're honest, that isn't the case in rugby league, but it's still the international game's greatest potential strength.

It's hard to grow the belief that international rugby league is the game's ultimate stage when Australia cruises to Test match victories with and against players that have played for more than one country.

In recent years the Kangaroos have hosted Tests in Newcastle (this year) and Wollongong in 2014.

Last year's Anzac Test attracted a crowd of just 32,681 at Suncorp Stadium. The most recent Test in Sydney - in 2014 - attracted just 25,429.

Cheapening the international game by allowing players to act as international mercenaries clearly isn't the answer.

At some point the international game has to stand on its own two feet.

Is a short-term increase in competitiveness worth the long term impact of treating international rugby league like a sideshow attraction?

The RLIF has admitted it is hoping to make a few extra bucks through promising a more competitive Rugby League World Cup in Australia next year.

"It allows us to market a better product when we're trying to sell it internationally," RLIF international development manager Tas Baitieri said.

"We're going to have a better quality standard of the game which is going to be appealing to the public and also television broadcasters."

Twelve of the 28 matches at the last World Cup, in 2013, were decided by 20 points or more.

"When you have games that are blowout scorelines, it doesn't endower the game a lot when you're trying to sell the game to new countries like America," Baitieri said.

Samoa stand to be the big winners of the decision, with a number of players including Milford, Josh McGuire, Suaia Matagi, Junior Paulo, Marty Taupau and Joseph Leilua set to star for the country if they miss Australian or New Zealand selection.

Unfortunately, Samoa's short term win doesn't mean it's a win for rugby league.

- news.com.au

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