I'll look at this weekend's league internationals with a mixture of great excitement and a touch sadness.

On one hand, the rise of Tonga in particular has given greater identity to Pacific Nations sport, and added a brilliant new element to international league. Saturday night's west Sydney test between Mate Ma'a Tonga and Toa Samoa should be the sporting highlight of the weekend, the main cause for excitement.

The decision by key players to quit the Kiwis and Kangaroos to join the Tongan World Cup side helped create amazing scenes in Auckland and Hamilton last year, and sent the Kiwis crashing.

Powerful Sea Eagles forward Addin Fonua-Blake - surely a 2018 Kiwis certainty - has added significantly to the momentum by switching back to Tonga, having been in that Kiwis World Cup side. Fonua-Blake said he did not get the same feeling pulling on the Kiwis jersey, compared to hoisting the red of Tonga over his head.


It is brilliant to see a Pacific nation turning the tables on the big guns, on and off the field. In 1995, the Duane Mann-led Tongan World Cup side almost beat the Kiwis in Warrington, and may have done so had Australia not snatched Jim Dymock and John Hopoate off them.

That was the way it was back then, a situation which is finally being remedied for Tonga. (Unfortunately, Samoa is having trouble keeping players, with World Cup squad members switching to the Kiwis).

On the other hand, I hope that Tongan players are not forever lost to the Kiwis, that the exodus is not set in stone.

The cobbled-together Kiwis for Sunday morning's test against England in Denver may represent a landmark moment in the shifting cultural identity of the team, and the almost total absence of Tongan players makes it feel as if the national side has taken a sad turn.

This 2018 Kiwis squad may be unique because it does not contain a New Zealand-born player who would be identified as European. This current side, under Aussie coach Michael Maguire, is a mix of New Zealand-born players almost all of Maori and Samoan heritage.

One exception is outside back Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, whose father Joseph is Tongan. Significantly Watene-Zelezniak's great-grandfather Steve is a celebrated character in Kiwi league, the first Maori to captain the national side.

This led Dallin to promise his grandfather Tuhoea that he would pledge his allegiance to Aotearoa. Watene-Zelezniak duly rejected the Australian schoolboys jersey for the Kiwis version instead.

Another exception is 27-year-old newcomer Slade Griffin who was born in Australia, although raised by his Kiwi mother in the old league stronghold of Greymouth.

Knights forward Griffin, who came to New Zealand aged two, told a Newcastle newspaper he had always felt Kiwi, even though two older siblings regard themselves as Australian.

"Who wouldn't want to play State of Origin if you got your name called but I'd probably put my hand up for the Kiwis," Griffin said last month, highlighting the dilemma facing some players in league's confusing border disputes.

League players choose their representative allegiance on many factors — for some it is all about heart, others take opportunity. For instance, James Tamou — of Manawatu origins — was in a wider Kiwis squad but quickly switched to Australia in order to play State of Origin.

Representative allegiance is a personal choice for those who have a choice. But the Tongan community is integral to New Zealand life, and Tongan-heritage players are part of Kiwi rugby league history led in particular by the Mann family. Duane Mann is one of New Zealand's most capped players — his father Don, who was born in Tonga, and cousin George also wore the Kiwi emblem.

Rampaging Cowboys forward Jason Taumalolo and the Warriors' flying tryscorer David Fusitu'a are helping steer league in a fantastic new direction by playing for Tonga in their prime rather than the Kiwis, and all power to them.

It means from now on whenever a bright prospect from New Zealand emerges in the NRL, many Kiwis fans will pay extra attention to their heritage.

There may be some - like Watene-Zelezniak - who could play for Tonga but still feel a stronger pull from the black jersey. As a Kiwis supporter, I hope so.