By STEVE MASCORD
WHEN it was announced on December 19, 2012 that State of Origin qualification rules were being tightened, most of us thought it was a good idea.
If you didn’t live in NSW and Queensland before the age of 13, you can’t play for that state. There would be exceptions – such as being eligible for the state your father represented or the state you represented at Under 20s level. The rule would not be retrospective; Greg Inglis would not be forced to go back and play for NSW.
But 18 months on, some previously unforeseen implications are starting to arise. Before, Origin was seen as a way for Australia to hog all the talent in the NRL, with match payments of $30,000 per match too much for the lines of Fijian-raised Akuila Uate to resist.
But with many players locked out of Origin now, we have the spectre of Australia choosing them anyway on residency grounds. If it’s good enough for Rangi Chase (England) and Brent Webb (New Zealand), then it’s not too hard to see Semi Radradra playing for the green and golds even though he can’t turn out in Origin.
Remember, we never thought Australia would pick a player from Super League – but Jason Smith and Jamie Lyon ended that misconception.
That being the case, if Australia are going to take foreign players who can’t represent NSW and Queensland, isn’t it only fair that they give other countries Origin players who are eligible for them? Residency only works because 15 of the 16 NRL clubs are in Australia. It gives the game’s most powerful country an extremely unfair advantage.
Secondly, with Melbourne finally fielding local juniors and Perth tipped to return to the NRL soon, a swathe of players would slip through the Origin net under the new regulations.
The new rules are intended to preserve the integrity of State of Origin but as the demographics of the NRL change, will the series become less relevant? Should the club competition be paused for three games for which an increasing number of NRL players are ineligible? Is it the start of a steady decline for the jewel in our crown, because of the increasingly migratory nature of our society?
Below we try to answer a number of key questions affecting the future of Origin.
WHY IS THE CUTOFF AGE 13?
“THE main reasons are that this is the start of highschool in all states now and it is also the age when rugby league players start playing under the international laws,” said the NRL’s Andrew Hill. ARL Commission officials accessed the New Zealand Rugby League’s statistics on junior players in coming up with this rule. They found that players who crossed the Tasman before the age of 13 generally did so with their families, who migrated for economic or persona reasons. From 14 onwards – but particularly around the ages of 16 and 17 – players began to move purely for football. At those ages, they have been scouted by NRL clubs and placed in junior competitions to learn the game. This is a key element of the new rule’s role in protecting international football.
HOW MANY NRL PLAYERS CAN REPRESENT OTHER COUNTRIES?
THE number of players in the NRL eligible to represent Pacific nations has hovered around 30 per cent to 35 per cent for several years now. No study has been done of how many are eligible for countries other than Australia but the percentage is thought to be extremely high. All players now fill out forms outlining their state and countries of eligibility, as well as the birthplaces of themselves, their parents and – if they know – their grandparents. Under Rugby League International Federation rules, a player can apply to change his country of election once during a World Cup cycle. However, the RLIF does not recognise State of Origin as tying a player to Australia and Origin does not recognise the RLIF rules. Jarryd Hayne could play for Fiji next month and then turn out for NSW without applying to change his country of election because the two arenas are not legislatively linked. As long as the ARL believes Hayne is eligible for Australia, NSW can pick him. To satisfy the RLIF, Hayne would only have to apply when chosen, or about to be chosen, for Australia.
WHY CAN’T ORIGIN PLAYERS REPRESENT OTHER COUNTRIES?
THIS is a hobby horse for internationalists: if people who genuinely qualify for NSW or Queensland and a country other than Australia could play for both, Origin would cease to be a recruitment tool for the green and golds. From what Rugby League Week can gather, the ARLC disagrees as a matter of principle: to play for NSW or Queensland you should be a New South Welshman or a Queenslander and if that’s what you are, you’re an Australian. “The Commission was very keen to protect the Origin concept as a game between NSW and Queensland,” Hill said. The people in power are passionate about this. Their passion may be hurting international football but their motives, as far as we can see, are pure. They’re not trying to use Origin to recruit players for Australia, even if that is the effect of the current situation
WOULD AUSTRALIA EVER PICK SOMEONE ON RESIDENCY GROUNDS?
THINGS could get awfully complicated if Australia started picking foreign players, who are excluded from Origin because of the new rules, just because they live here. Residency works in almost every other sport in almost every country in the world, you could not write a rule against Australia picking players who have been here for three years because it would be a restraint of trade. “The rules apply in the same way to all countries who play rugby league,” is as much as Hill would say. But picking players who move here to play football goes against everything the current Origin qualification rules stand for. If Australia chooses to make players who represent NSW or Queensland eligible for its national team, then surely it can choose not to cynically capitalise on the fact all but one of the NRL clubs is in Australia. National coach Tim Sheens chose not to comment when we contacted him.
WHAT HAPPPENS TO PLAYERS FROM THE OTHER STATES?
MELBOURNE’s Young Tomumaipea is tied to NSW because he represented the Blues at Under 20s level. He did that because, under the previous rules, he was deemed a New South Welshman by virtue of the Storm’s participation in the SG Ball Under 18s competition. But that will no longer be the case. The new rules supersede those that allowed Greg Inglis to be a Queenslander because the Storm’s feeder team played in a QRL competition. If the next Young Tonumaipea did not live in NSW or Queensland before the age of 13, he can’t play for either of them. We’re told the ARLC has had preliminary talks about open age teams from the other states which include NRL stars. Those states won’t take on NSW or Queensland in our lifetimes but we may see them play Origin curtain-raisers or a national championship one day. “We have spoken about providing representative pathways for players from states other than NSW or Queensland,” said Hill.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK