By STEVE MASCORD
ON a crisp, sunny January day in Manhattan, your correspondent walked into the headquarters of a finance company on Park Avenue and sent a text to one Curtis Cunz.
Five minutes later, a giant of a man emerged from an elevator, shook my hand and escorted be to a 42nd floor boardroom with sweeping views of New York City.
Curtis was a front rower with the United States Tomahawks. If there was one word to sum him up, it was pride. Cunz was clearly steeped in rugby league culture, dropped the odd Australianism but above all was thrilled to be going to the Rugby League World Cup and representing America.
He offered me photos from his home on the other side of the Hudson River to go with my story. He was aware that his image was positive for the game in America during a time of disharmony – a successful, young corporate high flyer who was also super fit and believed in the future of the game Stateside.
Cunz had remained loyal to the AMNRL when the breakaway USARL had emerged. The US captain, Apple Pope, had even stood down from his club – ‘rebel’ leaders Jacksonville – to keep his position.
Yet nine months later, when the US team for the World Cup was selected, Curtis wasn’t in it. Nor was Apple.
On Facebook, Curtis told his friends: “speechless…….. I’m done. Good luck to all my mates and congratulations. It was fun … playing in every game to get us this far”.
The week before, in Italy, there was a similar reaction from local players when the likes of the Minichiellos, Anthony Laffranchi and Craig Gower.
As is the case in America, the antagonism was magnified by the fact there’s a rebel competition with long standing enmities already in place.
Domestic players v foreign professionals in an era of huge disparity between the strength of our top three countries and everyone else: what’s the answer?
This is one of those rare issues where it’s not idealism v pragmatism. One can reasonably argue that one has rugby league’s best interests at heart either way; a team of overseas-based players means a competitive side but a team predominantly made up of domestic players encourages development and grassroots.
One answer would be a quota of domestic players. After all, you need to have domestic activity even to take part in World Cup qualifiers.
But the quota was ditched before the 2008 World Cup when Tonga threw up the possibility of legal action because it was unsafe to pit local amateurs against battle hardened pros. They said it was a health and safety issue.
If you’ll remember, the Tongans played hardball that World Cup, FuiFui MoiMoi and Taniela Tuiaki taking legal action aimed at overturning RLIF rules so they could switch from New Zealand and play in the tournament.
A quota system would also guarantee the New Zealand Warriors a minimum number of spots in every Kiwis World Cup squad – a situation which would be patently ridiculous.
It’s OK to say Italian and American selectors should have “looked after” domestic players. The Americans picked more of them than Tonga. What you need are rules that apply to everyone equally.
Let’s not forget the Americans were kept out of previous World Cup by a Samoan side bolstered by players who had freshly transferred their loyalties from New Zealand.
So to suggest the Tomahawks should have kept faith with the players who got them into the tournament is a little naïve – once bitten, twice shy perhaps.
Instead, the root of the problem lies in the haphazard nature of our international scene between World Cups. The RLIF seems happy to sit back and let anyone play anyone when most of the internationals below the top level are really just A- or Residents teams.
As a result, the United States team can turn over 14 players from one international to the next, when the truth is those 14 players were not really available for the Colonial Cup against Canada. And the 14 who are dropped after winning a series have every right to cry foul.
Games where foreign-based players aren’t available for selection should never be allowed to be promoted as full internationals because it just sets us up for a credibility nosedive then those stars do come in.
I’m sure Eric Perez and the Canadian Rugby League would not like to be hosting ‘United States A’ or ‘United States Residents’ but that’s what they were. The sooner we have someone at the RLIF protecting the integrity and intellectual property of international football, the better.
If there is not a pause (or end to the season) in the NRL and Super League to allow players to be released, then generally speaking it should not be deemed a full international and Test caps should not be awarded.
In the end, the selection policies of every country at the World Cup, including the United States, will be judged by the results.
If you are snubbing local players, then the men replacing them probably need to be decisively better. We don’t know how the local US players would have gone at the World Cup.
But the men wearing the red, white and blue are now under all sorts of pressure to – as their team slogan puts it – “shock the world”.
FOR the World Club Challenge, a Sydney Rooster-Manly grand final was not a good outcome.
Manly play at the somewhat antiquated Brookvale Oval, where corporate facilities are limited and the sort of dollars necessary to make a profit from flying opponents in from the other side of the globe are hard to come by.
Sydney Roosters have a more spacious home ground but not as many supporters as the likes of South Sydney or the Brisbane Broncos.
And with Gary Hetherington having been the biggest proponent of the fixture moving to Oz, some of that impetus will be lost with Leeds’ elimination on the second last weekend of the Super League season.
Having said all that, Simon Moran and Ian Lenagan are canny businessmen. Could we be headed to a neutral venue in 2014, perhaps in the Middle East or Asia?
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD