NZRL CEO Greg Peters has expressed concern that the lure of State of Origin and international eligibility rules are combining to divert talent from the Kiwis to Australia and the Pacific nations before next year’s World Cup.
NSW sprung a major a selection surprise by naming 2017 Junior Kiwis captain Jarome Luai in their 27-man squad for the upcoming Ampol State of Origin series, while Queensland chose his former New Zealand representative teammate Moeaki Fotuaika after confirming he was still eligible for the Maroons.
Fotuaika, who was not included in a list of Origin eligible players on the QRL website until recently - is one of five members of the Maroons squad – along with Josh Papalii, Felise Kaufusi, Jaydyn Su’A and Hymel Hunt – who were born in New Zealand, as was NSW prop Junior Paulo.
All are eligible for Origin as they moved to NSW or Queensland before the age of 13, while Luai was born in Sydney but qualifies for New Zealand through his parents and is in the sights of Kiwis coach Michael Maguire for the 2021 World Cup.
The Penrith five-eighth is also eligible for Samoa through his grandparents and has represented the Pacific nation in five Tests as well as at last year’s World Cup 9s at Bankwest Stadium.
Luai, Fotuaika, Paulo, Su’A and Hunt face decisions next year which could preclude them from pulling on a Kiwis jersey in the future if they play State of Origin.
Under changes to the international eligibility rules designed to protect New Zealand from a repeat of the mass defection of stars to Tonga on the eve of the 2017 World Cup, players involved in mid-season Tests will be tied to those nations for the remainder of the year.
Kiwi officials believe players who play in next year’s State of Origin series will also be committed to Australia as their tier-one nation of choice but would remain eligible to represent any tier-two country for which they also qualify.
Australia, New Zealand and England/Great Britain are considered tier-one countries and players cannot switch between them once they have represented one.
However, players eligible for more than one country can also represent a tier-two nation, including Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands.
There are 19 players in this year’s State of Origin squads who are eligible for a Pacific nation but if they play for NSW or Queensland next year, the likes of Luai, Fotuiaka, Paulo, Su’A and Hunt would not be available for New Zealand at the World Cup.
Peters said the eligibility rules disadvantaged the Kiwis because players who qualified for Australia, New Zealand and a tier-two nation could play State of Origin and earn up to $30,000 per match while still being able to represent their Pacific heritage.
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"The NZRL are the only ones who can’t benefit from the players playing State of Origin, and getting paid handsomely for it," Peters said.
"It is ultimately the player’s decision what country they play for and I totally respect that it’s about your roots and your family, and where you come from and who you want to represent.
"But to be able to play for everyone else except New Zealand - and England - and still play Origin certainly puts those other countries at an advantage that New Zealand doesn’t have.
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"Auckland is the capital of the Pacific and in many cases these kids are playing rugby league in our systems so to then have State of Origin put in front of them and not be able to come back and represent the Kiwis even if they wanted is a concern to us."
While playing for the Junior Kangaroos or Junior Kiwis no longer ties a player to Australia or New Zealand at senior level, those who play a Test next year will be committed to that country for the remainder of 2021.
Peters said this would prevent a repeat of the last-minute exodus of players from the Kiwis when Jason Taumalolo, David Fusitu’a, Siosiua Taukeiaho and Manu Ma’u defected to Tonga, along with Australian prop Andrew Fifita.
However, with just one mid-year Test, the Kiwis will only be able to commit 19 players to the World Cup campaign until the end of the NRL season and players overlooked would be free to play for Tonga or Samoa.
"That is an improvement on where we were in 2017 and since then," Peters said.
"The playing squad that we select next June would only be eligible for New Zealand in that calendar year, so that is some protection.
"We can pick 19 players in June and those 19 players would then not be able to be picked off by anyone else but we could still be exposed if we need to pick other players, particularly in a World Cup year."