YOU’VE got to feel for Feleti Mateo.
The 28-year-old stuck solid with Tonga from 2006 until last year, gaining special dispensation to represent City and the Pacific island in 2008 before being told it was time for him to make a choice.
With his move to the Warriors going well, Mateo last season took the plunge and threw his lot in with City, NSW and Australia. Tonga lost their captain. Mateo failed to make the Blues’ side.
This Saturday night at Centrebet Stadium, he is barred from playing in the historic Tonga-Samoa Test because he has already changed his country of election once in this World Cup cycle.
But men who represented other countries – when Mateo has done no such thing – will be lining up for each team.
At the time of writing, Jeff Lima (six Tests for New Zealand) and Steve Matai (12 for the Kiwis) looked likely to be turning out for Samoa while Brent Kite (14 for Australia) and Fuifui MoiMoi (12 for NZ) would be donning Mateo’s precious red and white.
But rules are rules. ‘We’d love to have him there,” says Tongan assistant coach Kristian Woolf. “He has that bit of experience and also that x-factor in attack.”
It’s often been said that the developing countries have to wait in line behind Australia and New Zealand for players but on Sunday, they did that almost literally.
As the Australian, New Zealand, City, Country, NSW under 20s and Queensland under 20s teams were announced, the ancient Pacific rivals waited around to see who was left.
But Woolf insisted: “We’re not a second rate team by any means.
“Most of the squad is made up of NRL talent and I know of players who will be picked by Australia and New Zealand who really agonised over their decisions.
“Daniel Foster is one player who would have played in the Under 20s Origin but who chose us. Some of the others wanted to wait and see. If they were 50-50, we had to get to the point where we would leave them out.”
Saturday night’s game may not have the profile of the Friday evening Australia-New Zealand Test or Sunday’s City-Country clash. Even the Under 20s Origin at the same venue is probably competing with it in terms of profile.
But it’s a big moment and a long time coming, the first time Australian authorities have organised a full international involving two foreign countries – at an estimated expense of $200,000 – and it marks a new level of commitment to the international game from the new commission.
Clubs have supported the venture (notwithstanding any withdrawals between now and kick-off time), with the Melbourne Storm volunteering to let its players stay in Sydney following the game against South Sydney on Saturday.
It’s understood Fox Sports wanted another fixture on the representative weekend to match Nine’s Test and City-Country game. The Rugby League International Federation’s Tas Baitieri won’t say whether the pay network paid extra for the match.
The plan is for two other island nations – perhaps the Cook Islands and Fiji – to play on the same weekend. Baitieri would like to see a host of southern hemisphere national take to the field but says the idea of a global international weekend, with a pause to all club football, is still years away.
“It’s got to pay for itself,” he says. “We don’t want the game to go broke. Not that it is going to go broke but this isn’t an inexpensive exercise.
“We’ll be able to benefit a few World Cup sponsors. With the live television, we could have probably attracted more sponsors if we’d had more lead-in time.”
For fans of international rugby league, the “lead in time” to this Saturday has seemed like an eternity. But now the ball is finally rolling.
Sadly for Feleti Mateo, he’ll be watching from the sidelines like the rest of us.
* NB: Steve Matai did not make himself available for Samoa in time for selection.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK