Pacific league is at an all-time high — but is the sport savvy enough to capitalise on it?
The Rugby League World Cup tournament was a watershed for the sport, especially with the performances of the Island teams.
Tonga and Fiji achieved historic wins over a Tier One nation, and Papua New Guinea and Samoa also reached the quarter-finals. PNG's home matches were a stunning success, and Tonga were the darlings of the tournament who with an ounce of luck could have contested last night's final in Brisbane.
But what comes next?
"Things need to start moving," Tongan coach Kristian Woolf told the Herald on Sunday.
"There is a real opportunity for the sport and it needs to be embraced. We are always looking for ways to grow the international game and take it to new markets. That happened through the World Cup, particularly with Tonga.
"Every single Tongan kid — and probably every single Pacific Island kid — in New Zealand isn't thinking about playing for the All Blacks, they are thinking about being Jason Taumalolo."
Woolf understands the challenges — principally financial and logistical — but says it isn't about if they can be overcome, but when.
"Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and Papua New Guinea have earned the right and need to be rewarded," said Woolf. "They need to be included in the international schedule, not just playing each other.
"We know an annual clash in New Zealand between the Kiwis and Tonga would be massive, but the New Zealand Rugby League has got to want that to happen. The platform was laid five years ago with the start of the Pacific Challenge and now the time is right for taking it forward."
League in the Pacific has struggled through the decades. While the NRL and Super League have been happy to harness the area's raw talent — at least 30 per cent of players in the NRL are Polynesian — little has been given back to their countries of birth and heritage.
Pacific nations have been included in World Cups, to help boost the depth and competitiveness of the event, and then seemingly forgotten about in the intervening years.
The Pacific Challenge matches, held since 2013, have been a positive step but Island teams need more than one game per year.
And the World Cup continues to be weighted in Europe's favour. The Northern Hemisphere had three qualifying spots for the 2017 tournament (filled by Ireland, Italy and Wales) while Asia-Pacific had one (Tonga beat the Cook Islands in a playoff).
But the Cook Islands could have fielded the likes of Alex Glenn, Dylan Napa, Joseph Manu and Charnze Nichol-Klokstad and would have been much more competitive than some of the European teams.
However, the Cook Islands — and other small but potentially competitive countries such as Niue — will face a struggle to qualify for the next World Cup.
Six qualifying spots have been allocated to Europe (and two to the Americas) but there is no direct qualification for the best Asia-Pacific side (outside 2017 quarter-finalists Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, who gain automatic entry). Instead, they will have to face a three-nation intercontinental playoff hosted in the Middle East.
Some are sceptical about the ability of the sport to capitalise on this World Cup.
"Everyone is saying it is a breakthrough — and I hope it is — but let's wait and see," said former Kiwis and Samoan international David Solomona. "Fiji made the semifinals in 2008 and 2013 but then they were basically just ignored in between."
Solomona played for Samoa in the 2000 World Cup, when the team had no funding.
"One of our players took leave off work to play," said Solomona. "We were so happy for him when we made the quarter-finals. It meant we got a bonus and he could get some money for all the time away."
Finances have again been an issue in 2017, with the Pacific nations receiving a paltry amount compared with the Kiwis, Kangaroos and Lions.
"All the players are drawn from the same competitions now," said Solomona. "Everyone is in the NRL and Super League. So why is there still the big difference? It feels like not much has changed in 17 years."
But Woolf is positive a new chapter is about to begin.
"It's a hot topic and we need to push," said Woolf. "Once the dust settles from the World Cup, there needs to be discussions with the NRL and the Rugby League International Federation about the direction of the sport. We have to seize the moment. It's no longer just the big three."