The rise of the Pacific nations and how to capitalise on their RLWC success

International rugby league is currently a hot topic in rugby league circles, particularly on the back of the success of the Pacific nations at the 2018 Rugby League World Cup. As you delve deeper, however, just how much recognition are they set to receive moving forward and how often can we expect them to play? 

Brad Boucher has put forth his view on the rise of the Pacific nations and stresses that they cannot be cast asunder anymore. Instead, it is their turn to shine and the international rugby league powers that be must act and give those teams and their fans what they want; more regular international fixtures. Here is Brad’s view:

In the 1995 Rugby League World Cup, Kiwi Mathew Ridge kicked a field goal to defeat a heroic Tongan side by one point.

A nation outside those readily associated with the sport during the previous century really stood up to one of Rugby League’s big three and gave our game an opportunity to push our international boundaries, and create a much-needed new national team which could compete with our first tier nations.

Did the rugby league administrators see and grasp this opportunity by adding Tonga and other Pacific nations to regular international competitions or Test series against top tier nations? No. Tonga did not play another game against a member of the big three until a warm-up to the 2000 world cup five years later when the momentum was long gone.

If Rugby League was a surfer, he would be known as the guy who constantly misses the big perfect wave to ride and show his skills at their peak.

We have just had an amazing RLWC with each Pacific nation competing reaching the quarterfinals. Two of those sides – Fiji and Tonga – went onto the semi-finals. Both beat New Zealand to do so and Tonga – depending on your point of view – could have easily been playing in the final against Australia instead of England had a certain “no try” ruling gone to the video referee.

We have had kings show up to the games and American rock stars fly back on their own money to sing the anthem. We have had crowds in their thousands show up to airports to greet the players or line the streets in protest and support for their national team. Attendance records have been broken at sporting stadiums, crowd support for international teams has never been more passionate and media hype has never been more positive. Our game was rewarded with some of the greatest sporting drama anyone can remember and games of the highest possible standard.

And yet here we are the start of 2018 and only the one game for the Pacific nations has been set in concrete – a mid-season Test with a possible extra game for Tonga in Hawaii at the end of the year. Those games that are planned; are they being played in New Zealand to take advantage of the supporters there vying for more? No. They are a triple-header in a Sydney suburb shared amongst fans obsessed more with State of Origin and their NRL clubs than underdog Pacific teams.

How is this a reward for those Pacific Nations that brought so much to our World Cup? How is this an incentive to the players who knocked back huge match payments from Australia and New Zealand to honour their heritage and play so passionately for the Pacific Nations underdogs? How is this good for our international game?

The answer as to how to ride the RLWC momentum is quite obvious. These nations need a regular competition. A trophy they can hold up if victorious, a set of games that can reward the players each year as a decent respectable representative career and a tournament that can bring back the fans and give them something to look forward to. Reward them for their passionate support. They need an annual Pacific Cup to ride the World Cup momentum.

Played in New Zealand against New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji,  a Pacific Cup could easily become New Zealand’s – and the Pacific’s own – State of Origin.

NRL players eligible for each team of the standard of Jason Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita, Michael Jennings, Jarryd Hayne, Suliasi Vunivalu, Akuila Uate, Josh Papalii, Anthony Milford, Shaun Johnson and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – not to mention guys who missed the trend who might be tempted to make the switch, such as Reagan Cambell-Gillard, Felise Kaufusi and Josh McGuire. They could add the superstar factor that builds great competitions for future generations.

Already some of the New Zealand All Blacks have asked and been denied a switch to the Pacific nations for rugby union’s international game. Think what a consistent tournament of this standard might do for young players in New Zealand wondering which rugby path to choose for their adult careers. A Pacific Cup could help rugby league challenge union, not only in the Pacific but in New Zealand as well.

The Kiwis might take a small step backwards when some of their players make themselves available for Tonga or Samoa at the start but they will take two steps forward when the game revenue starts flowing into their bank accounts and young players in Australia and New Zealand playing both rugby league and union starts deciding they want to be apart of the atmosphere and passion this tournament is sure to create.

But New Zealand are already committed to touring England in 2018 and can’t possibly take part in a Pacific Cup this year I hear you say? Well, it just so happens rugby league has another tool in its shed that can help kick-start this tournament until 2019 when the Kiwis are available and it’s not just any tool, it’s a bloody big sledgehammer.

I’m not talking about Australia, though they would be a great option. The other team I’m talking about for 2018, I’d bet would draw massive crowds and TV ratings because those games would be the last games played by one of the games most popular and best players of all time. Because who wouldn’t want to watch a Johnathan Thurston lead a full-strength Indigenous Dream Team around the field for the last time in his testimonial year? The script has written itself.

So come on rugby league administrators. These gifts to our game are right in front of us to hand out. Reward the players and fans of the Pacific Nations for their work in the RLWC and reward one of our games greatest players with a send-off he truly deserves. Don’t be the surfer who misses the perfect wave for our game to ride to success.

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