Australia’s Pacific Islander and Māori rugby league communities – including players and fans – have expressed disappointment at the NRL’s decision to cancel a mid-season international round dedicated to representing their home country.
This year’s Rep Round has been described as the biggest game in National Rugby League history, after the international rugby league was sidelined for nearly three years due to COVID-19 restrictions.
With a mid-season hiatus from NRL football, six Pacific teams dominated the regular schedule this past weekend, going head-to-head on the same weekend as the State of Origin games.
Kieran Foran (center) of the Kiwis warms up before the international men’s test match between the New Zealand Kiwis and Tonga in Auckland, New Zealand. Source: Getty † Hannah Peters
NRL veteran Kieran Foran expressed immense pride in donning the New Zealand Kiwi jersey for the 23rd time in his career.
“To represent your country back there, it doesn’t get any bigger than that,” he said.
New Zealand played their first international match on home soil against Tonga in an electric atmosphere, unpacking Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium and bringing the competition’s supporters together outside Australia’s borders.
Meanwhile, Papua New Guinea faced Fiji and the Cook Islands faced Samoa in a double-header in Sydney.
From Auckland to the western suburbs of Sydney, the crowd erupted in excitement before kick-off, with traditional dances and war cries on national television.
Emotions also ran high among many players. Josh Schuster from Samoa was one of the many players seen crying as the Samoan national anthem was played.
(left to right) Bunty Afoa, Josh Schuster and Josh Aloiai of Samoa sing the national anthem ahead of the international men’s test match between Samoa and the Cook Islands. Source: Getty † Mark Kolbe
Schuster described representing his country as “one of the best moments of my career”.
“We saw last weekend how much it meant to the players to represent their country,” Foran said.
According to statistics from the NRL, 45 percent of the league is made up of Pasifika or Māori, despite making up less than 2 percent of the national population.
Samoan-Australian Maserota Aiesi has been a rugby league player all his life, barely leaving his home last weekend as he sat in front of the television watching his homeland be represented.
“It’s very uplifting to see, especially if you come from the islands, you can see how your culture is represented on a national level…when you see that, your hair stands on end,” the 64-year-old told australiabusinessblog News . †
“It’s something we’re very proud of, especially the young boys who were born here and carry on with their parents’ heritage. Wherever they go, they carry their culture and traditions with them.”
He was impressed with the fact that NRL paused club football mid-season to showcase Pasifika’s talent. “It’s a good indication that NRL is expanding the game in our regions”.
“We are small countries, but we are trying to make a big impact on many of these sports.”
Dancers perform at halftime during the Men’s International Test Match between Samoa and the Cook Islands. Source: Getty † Mark Kolbe
NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo announced the league will shift international competition to the end of the season, described as a strategy to expand the presence of international representation.
“We are working through the season structure for next year. It is a new cycle and there are some changes related to the new broadcasting arrangements with our partners, but I will say this – the [Australian Rugby League] The Commission is 100 percent committed to international football,” Abdo told NRL News.
“Instead of just having one round, we can start thinking about tours, we can start thinking about tournaments, and we can start thinking about regular content every year, instead of just doing a one-off. That’s incredibly exciting.”
Players from Papua New Guinea and Fiji gather for prayer after the game in Sydney. Source: Getty † Mark Kolbe
But Mr Aiesi had already set his sights on next season’s Rep Round, saying “it was pretty disappointing” when he learned of the NRL’s decision to push it to the end of the 2023 season.
Foran also doubted whether shifting the representation round to the end of the year was the solution.
“It’s disappointing not to find room for it in the calendar … it’s about trying to find the right moment,” he said.
Clint Newton, CEO of the Rugby League Players’ Association (RLPA), said the round was crucial in ensuring the players who give so much to the game are heard.
“Players have consistently said they want to represent their country more in a calendar year,” Newton said.
“I think countries and players are disappointed that there is currently no place for it in the middle of the year, because it gives them a great opportunity to connect with players from other teams and celebrate their culture and heritage, and that is something that is incredibly special.”
He said the RLPA has not been consulted about the decision to scrap the Rep Round mid-season, which prevents everyone involved from understanding the rationale behind the NRL’s decision.
“We should all work together to make these international competitions a top priority… and we were not part of the decision to remove the international competitions mid-season in 2023 and possibly beyond,” he said.
Issues have arisen over the round being played during the season, with huge workloads for both the league and players to make it to the International round – all while ensuring eligible players are eligible at the end of this season. are for the Rugby World Cup year.
Another reason for moving the round to the end of the season is that Pasifika and Māori players – who have been selected for the high-profile State of Origin series – will be able to represent both their state and their country.
Mr Newton said that now that more stakeholders are part of the decision-making process, better planning can ensure that an international competition at the end of the season can be a success.
“Now that the NRL is committed to working with us to develop a schedule that will allow prioritizing international rugby competition, particularly in the Pacific region, I think that is a big step forward,” he said.