Saturday, October 13, 2012

Fixing The Mess That Is Rugby League's International System

Confession here: I didn't watch the second half of tonight's test.

The only reason I even bothered to watch the first half is because my dad was and I figured I'd keep him company. When Tamou scored that try and we both had a second to reflect on the irony of the situation, we also kind of mutually agreed that we didn't care who won, turned it off and went back to our respective work.

Why so apathetic about the last footy of the season? Simple answer - international rugby league is a joke. When James Tamou, born and raised in Taranaki, is pulling on the green and gold and joining a long list of career-over-country border jumpers on both sides (Brad Thorn before him for QLD and Australia, Nathan Fien and Brent Webb for New Zealand to name but a few examples) it makes you realise that something's gotta be done.

Of course, there's a difference between average first graders like Fien and Webb who made themselves available for NZ after doing time with the Warriors and realising that higher honours in Australia would not be coming their way, and potential superstars like Tamou. (I don't want to seem like I'm picking on a guy who is much bigger than me and could bash me with one hand here - he's just an easy target right now).

Let's not kid ourselves here - James Tamou made himself eligible for Australia for one single reason. He wanted to play for New South Wales in Origin. For kids who grow up watching rugby league in this part of the world, Origin is the pinnacle. In my high school years in Whangarei, you knew the Thursday morning after Origin games you'd see a lot of bleary eyes and tired minds cause we'd been up till midnight watching the telecast. As great an honour as it is to represent one's country, to pull on the blue or the maroon jumper is the dream. Not the green and gold or black and white.

Therefore, if you want to fix the international game Origin is the place to start. A lot of people, including some I respect greatly (such as my own team's chairman) believe that it's necessary to return to birthright laws for both - born in NSW/QLD, play for NSW/QLD. Born in whichever country, that's your international team and you can't become eligible for Australia just to play Origin no matter how good you are.

I personally don't agree with this. Mostly because there are enough kids who move between states and country at a young age and inevitably follow the local team. Who's going to tell a kid born in Sydney but raised in QLD and a lifelong Maroons fan that he can only play for NSW?
(I just thought of a couple of my mates who are having a baby - die hard NSWers but living on the Gold Coast where the kid will probably be born. Should the pillow baby be good enough to play rep footy God forbid he play for QLD). Birth eligibility is too exclusionary in my mind.

Instead, here are the two solutions I propose.

1) Seperate Origin from international football and implement a six year rule for Origin. That is, if you wish to play for either state you have to have resided in and played at least six years of football there before you turn 18, regardless of your international eligibility.

2) International eligibility is determined by birth. Should you wish to play for a different country to that in which you were born in, you must have either:
a) moved to the country you wish to play for in the first five years of your life
b) resided in and played at least 12 years of junior football in that country before turning 18.

The reality is that less and less young footballers (or people in general) spend their entire lives living within the boundaries of one state or country. People migrate interstate, from the Islands to Australia and NZ, from NZ to Australia, even some Poms. Eligibility rules have to take this into consideration.

At the same time, one of the reasons that we need to fix the rules is to provide clear guidelines to players and selectors alike who is and isn't available. That's why I have arbitrarily chosen six years for Origin and 12 for international football. Some will criticise the time period and again it's just a model - but at least it provides clear boundaries while allowing some level of flexibility to players. Because quite frankly, I'm uncomfortable with any system that forces players into a position where they don't have a choice due to accidents of birth. Why should guys like James Tamou not be allowed to live their dream of playing Origin? It's nativist bullshit to say they're less worthy of it because they weren't born here.

I think of myself as an example. Of course I'm not exactly taking calls from Laurie Daley - but I was born in Fiji, lived in Sydney since I was 1, moved to NZ when I was 12 and spent seven years there, hold dual citizenship. Under current rules I could play for three countries. (If Portugal had a rugby league team, I could play for them also through my great grandfather). I'm definitely not alone here. I remember out of my 2000 Hurstville United U10 A team only about five guys were actually born in Australia. Restricting it to birth ignores the fact that we are an increasingly multicultural society and want kids of all backgrounds to play rugby league and aspire to the top regardless of where you were born.

One thing I can agree with those who believe it should come down to birth is that the current system needs to change. International and Origin football should not come down to who offers the best deal or the most chances to play as it has.

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