This Rugby League World Cup has certainly been one of the most exciting ones to date and that has been helped by the presence of the Pacific Island nations. The likes of Tonga, Fiji and Papua New Guinea have brought success on the field and a vibrancy off it. Indeed, both Fiji and Tonga have beaten New Zealand so far in the tournament and both will be looking to claim yet another Tier 1 scalp this weekend as they head into the semi-finals. But can they really make the step to join Australia, New Zealand and England at rugby league’s top table? Or will this be another false dawn?
The key thing that has levelled the playing field slightly in this tournament is the rule change which allowed players to swap to a Tier 2 nation if they weren’t selected for a Tier 1 nation. That has seen the likes of Jarryd Hayne and Josh Papalii turn out for Fiji and Samoa respectively. Had they been selected for Australia however, it is likely that they would have been pulling on the Green and Gold jersey this weekend.
Tonga are perhaps the side who benefited most from this rule and upon the announcement of their squad, odds on them winning the competition shot from 125/1 to 7/1. With Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita both declining call-ups to Tier 1 nations the Tongan pack is up there with the best in the world.
With so much positivity around the Pacific sides, what is to stop them from becoming established rugby league nations? One thing is certainly the pay. For the likes of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (born in Samoa) the riches on offer playing for New Zealand far outweigh that offered by the Pacific Island nations. It is one thing for Taumalolo who has just signed a contract with the North Queensland Cowboys for $10 million to effectively play for free whilst with Tonga, but that option won’t be viable for all players.
The second thing hampering the Pacific Nations is the lack of meaningful tests outside a World Cup year. The new international calendar appears to have a mid-season break in it which will allow test matches to take place and Samoa, Tonga and Papua New Guinea will all face some opposition. However, will the likes of Taumalolo stick around and play for Tonga when New Zealand have a three-match tour to England to look forward to at the end of the season?
Of course the only way the Pacific sides are going to get better and retain their players is by having high profile matches. This in turn should allow them to generate greater revenue which could be used to pay their players more and so the cycle goes on. However, with the Tier 1 nations likely to play matches against themselves in money spinning matches, will there be any room for the Pacific sides to get a game?
It certainly is quite the conundrum and it is one the RLIF need to find an answer to if they are to build on the success of this tournament. One thing which could be changed is the distribution of the prize money. Let’s face it, we are unlikely to see anyone else apart from a Tier 1 nation win the World Cup any time soon. Those nations have the best sponsorship deals and the richest governing bodies so it is arguable they do not really need the prize money. Were the funds distributed on a more even spread, it would at least redress the chasm that exists between the big three and those looking to bridge the gap. It is by no means a complete solution, but it would go some way to kick-starting the game in the Pacific Islands.
Main photo credit: Grant Down/SWpix.com/PhotosportNZ