What is the purpose of a showpiece tournament? Is it to make it fun? Make it even? Make it fair?

So many questions, all of them rattling around in the empty recesses of my mind following Tonga's invigorating win over the Kiwis in Hamilton on Saturday.

This was a win for the ages not because it was necessarily unexpected - look at the respective talent on each team and try to tell me Tonga were underdogs - but because of the outpouring of national pride and sheer delirium it created.

It was fun.

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Part of that fun was a result of the realisation that the Rugby League World Cup was suddenly a lot more even. It is no longer a closed shop between Australia, England and New Zealand, even if the former are still overwhelming favourites to lift the title.

Strong showings from Tonga, Lebanon and Papua New Guinea - a country where league is the national sport - give the impression that league is gaining traction in a global sense.

Yet this is a mirage, surely?

The comparative evenness of this tournament owes everything to eligibility chicanery and if you agree with that premise, then does it become less of a competition and more of an exhibition?

Forget for a minute the respective size of Tonga's GDP ($395.2m, 2016) against New Zealand ($185 billion) and Australia (1.205 trillion). Forget the analogies involving Cinderella, or David and Goliath and strip the argument back to its essence: is it fair their strength revolves around players New Zealand and Australia believed until the 11th hour would be playing for them?

If you need any help finding an answer, reverse the roles and ask yourself whether it'd be fair if, say, Australia took Samoa's best player on the eve of the tournament?

Don't think I'm crying on behalf of the Kiwis here. They New Zealand Rugby League and specifically the Kiwis brand are difficult to sympathise with. In terms of historical redress, there is for some a delicious irony in New Zealand's campaign being kneecapped by a Pacific Island nation.

Besides, Mate Ma'a Tonga are the best thing that's happened to league in a long, long time. It would be one of the Greatest Stories Ever Told if they went on to win the tournament. Seriously.

What I struggle with is this idea that Tonga's victory is evidence that league bosses have somehow cracked the eligibility code and that rugby union should follow.

Ethics in sport tend to be fluid and on a personal level tend to tilt in the direction that best suits the teams you follow, but few would argue that rugby's superpowers have been at best negligent and at worst downright colonial when it comes to treatment of talent from the Pacific Island nations.

There is an obvious and overdue need for a mechanism whereby players within a certain Tier One cap threshold can switch to a Tier Two team (as long as they are eligible under nationality clauses) without a stand-down period.

After all, Jason Taumalolo being able to play league for two nations in six months is no more silly than Apia-born Sosene Anesi's international rugby career being restricted to 22 minutes as a replacement for the All Blacks against Fiji in 2005.

The rule would have to be robust enough to leave no room for manipulation but I have little faith that World Rugby have an appetite to make it happen. Their showpiece tournament is trucking along just fine - 2.5 million attended the 2015 tournament and $480m was collected in ticket revenue - without the need to artificially even the field.

Meanwhile the Rugby League World Cup will continue on its merry way. So far it's been bit of a revelation. It's been a hoot.

It has been surprisingly even.

But fair?

That's debatable.

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Make the most of this All Whites qualification hysteria. As of 2026, Fifa have all but killed the process by expanding the competition to a morbidly obese 48 teams.

Unless Australia try the confederation switcheroo again, the All Whites "drama" will be restricted to places like Honiara and Noumea.

There will be no Italian tears or like this week, or English rage as there was pre-1994. No Argentine angst that marked this sketchy campaign. Barring complete catastrophe, all the major nations will make the Big Show. Part of what makes the World Cup special - the getting there - will be lost.

THE WEEK IN MEDIA ...

There once was a time when I used to hang out a bit in Twitter but soon enough it showed itself for what it is: an antisocial chamber that constantly echoes the worst of humanity. So this Guardian piece intrigued me.


Venerable but fading Sports Illustrated has boosted longform stocks with a series of sporting true crime stories. Here's an intriguing little tale that involves a wannabe pro baseballer and the counterfeit sports memorabilia industry.