COMMENT by Steve Ricketts, former Chief Rugby League Writer, The Courier-Mail
Good luck to rugby league administrators next year, as they try to promote State of Origin as ‘The Best of the Best’, a common theme over the years for Australia’s most watched football event.
Rugby League has created a rod for its own back, with its inability to attract a wider cross section of the community to the game’s playing ranks, as evidenced by Tonga’s 16-12 win over Australia at Auckland’s Eden Park on November 2.
With Polynesian lads dominating many of our junior leagues, particularly in Sydney and Brisbane, it is likely they will now want to play for Tonga, Samoa, Fiji or the Cook Islands, and good on them.
I’m happy to see all those countries, along with Melanesian Papua New Guinea, thriving in the 13 man code, and possibly making big inroads into what is still rugby union heartland – in the Pacific itself.
But the pool of elite players for Origin football is getting scarily shallow, particularly from a Queensland point of view.
And do we have a new breed of players coming through, men of the calibre of Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis, Billy Slater, Matt Gillett and Paul Gallen?
I’m not convinced we do.
During Channel 9’s coverage of the Australia v Tonga match, it was worrying to hear former Queensland and Australian forward, Sam Thaiday say that the difference between Tonga and Australia was that Tonga played for their country. The inference being our blokes didn’t.
Maybe if you don’t sing the anthem, it means you don’t care enough. But I digress.
Looking at the make-up of young sides in Sydney’s west – rugby league heartland, we are told – it seems the majority of elite players have Polynesian backgrounds. Will they play for New South Wales or Tonga or Samoa?
The bush was once rugby league’s most fertile breeding ground, but now some towns need to import almost entire teams of Fijians to field a side.
I know the demographics of this country are changing quickly, but not that quickly. The young men who once played league, are no longer attracted to it, for a variety of reasons, I would suggest. (That’s another story).
Losing to Tonga did not sit comfortably with me. I have always regarded the Kangaroos as rugby league’s version of the All Blacks, a brand so strong, it would brush aside challenges from ‘smaller’ countries, while having to accept the odd loss to the Kiwis or English.
That aura dissipated with the loss to Tonga when our forwards were bullied, and our halves let down the jersey with aimless, panic football.
I have been known to applaud the odd Australian loss as being good for the code overall, such as the Kangaroos losing to France in the 1978 series; the Kiwis winning the odd Test in the 1980s and Britain winning at Wembley in the 1990s.
But those overseas teams were genuine overseas teams. They were not made up of players entirely from the NRL, like Tonga.
Footnote: Yes, we had a convincing win over the Kiwis the week before the Tonga loss, but that was a poor Kiwi outfit. They too, have been hit by the loss of players to Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. One day, the All Blacks might suffer the same fate.
Photo: Has the green and gold jumper lost its aura? Current Australian coach, Mal Meninga in his playing days – against Welsh rival, John Devereux. (Photo Andrew Varley).