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SPORT TODAY: Eligibility rules jeopardising international rugby league credibility

SPORT TODAY: Eligibility rules jeopardising international rugby league credibility

By Radio Sport co-host Kent Johns

 

Sadly, the credibility of international rugby league is shot. If you are late to this story then let me fill you in.

One day before coach David Kidwell was to name his Kiwis squad for the upcoming World Cup, star player Jason Taumalolo decided he would rather play for Tonga.

He was within his rights to make that choice because the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) allows for a player with mixed heritage to hedge his bets.

Here is the key clause in the eligibility rules:

“Dual eligible players are able to nominate one Tier 1 nation (Australia, New Zealand and England) and one Tier 2 or 3 nation in which they are eligible for prior to an international tournament.”

The problem here though is Taumalolo had never given any indication to New Zealand management that he preferred to represent Tonga, and had played for the Kiwis against Australia as recently as May this year.

New Zealand convenor of selectors Tawera Nikau had spoken to him in person only days before the squad announcement, and there was no mention Taumalolo would be unavailable. Coach Kidwell then tried in vain to make contact once whispers of a defection gained speed.

And do you know how Taumalolo informed the Kiwis brass he was out? Via text message from a friend to the Kiwis team manager.

That’s right — he didn’t even have the front to inform Kidwell, Nikau or other selectors Hugh McGahan and Tony Iro (all of whom had distinguished careers for the Kiwis).

Then Andrew Fifita decided he wanted to play for Tonga too. Problem was, he’d been named in Mal Meninga’s Australian team the day before.

Both Taumalolo and Fifita said they wanted “to give back” to the Tongan community. But if that was the true motivation why not pledge allegiance much earlier and save everyone the embarrassment of trying to explain the situation?

Six other New Zealand-eligible players are turning out for Tonga, and a story suggested their was a secret “pact” between all eight to play for the island nation, a story that hasn’t been disputed by those concerned.

Taumalolo hasn’t even given a proper explanation as to why he has behaved in the way he has. The best we have to go on are reports he is unhappy with the suspensions of Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor from the World Cup, punishments handed down by Kidwell after the test in Canberra in May.

Team captain Adam Blair and former international Benji Marshall were quick to condemn Taumalolo, and one wonders whether he would be welcolmed back into the Kiwis in the future.

And as for the fans? Each is entitled to one’s own feelings, but I think he’s now made his bed and should stick with Tonga.

International rugby league just can’t have players changing allegience like underwear, regardless of what the rules say. And, really, this should be the catalyst for change.

If players are in the fortunate (or tricky) position of having two or three choices then they need to make a call and stick with it. Allowing one (and final) considered switch might be a working compromise. Because the credibility of the international game is riding on it.

In what other sport would you have a situation where star players don’t tell international coaches of their availability for selection either the day before or day after being named? It is just ridiculous.

New Zealand will play Tonga in Hamilton on November 11. That’ll be appointment viewing. But any black eyes suffered in that match won’t hurt as much as the one suffered by the sport.

***

Make no mistake about it — this is a hugely important season for the Wellington Phoenix in the A-League.

The team has a guarantee to play in the league for another three seasons and possibly another three after that.

But that is conditional on the club hitting key objectives — the primary ones being results, attendance, and television viewership here and in Australia (and therefore greater broadcast dollars).

The Nix haven’t been much chop in their decade-long existence, and there is certainly concern in Australia their inclusion is harmful to the A-League. After all, you are only as strong as your weakest link.

New coach Darije Kalezic needs to win plenty of games and get people humming again, otherwise I fear the club will have its licence revoked in 2020. We wish you the best old son.

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