This article originally appeared in issue 398 of Rugby League World magazine. Issue 399 is currently in production and will be on sale from June 6. Click here to find out more about the magazine and to browse back issues click this link…
Undoubtedly the most frustrating Rugby League story over the last month was the news that Samoan fullback Anthony Milford (pictured above) has chosen to pursue a Queensland place rather than his international career.
Milford, the supremely talented Canberra Raiders full-back, was Samoa’s best player during last year’s World Cup, lighting up each of their matches with his brilliant broken field running.
He’s perfectly poised to develop into a genuine NRL star, and had initially indicated that he would continue to play for Samoa and represent them in the recent Four Nations qualifying match with Fiji.
Instead, a matter of days before the match, he confirmed that he would play for Queensland under-20s in their match about New South Wales, with a view to progressing to the full Maroons side and, presumably, a Kangaroos jersey.
Doesn’t this story sum up so much of why international Rugby League struggles so badly to establish itself properly?
State of Origin has grown into a monster in Australia, and is undoubtedly seen as the pinnacle of the sport there because of the money now generated by the annual three-match series.
Representing New South Wales or Queensland has clearly become more important to players than their country, with New Zealand-born James Tamou’s switch to New South Wales just one of a host of other examples in recent years,
This is damaging every nation outside of Australia, and the international game in itself.
Milford should have been bursting to pull his country’s blue shirt on again after the World Cup, and earn the chance to test himself against the Kangaroos, New Zealand and England in this year’s Four Nations.
Instead, he ran out in what was a curtain raiser to the Fiji-Samoa game at Penrith. Ironic doesn’t begin to cover it.
Until the game in Australia begins to embrace the notion that the international game should come first, this situation is going to get thrown up time and time again in coming years.
RFL chief executive Nigel Wood recently became chairman of the Rugby League International Federation.
Wood spoke passionately in last month’s edition of Rugby League World about the need for a full-time executive at the RLIF, who thinks about international Rugby League “from seven o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night”.
One of his first objectives in his new role should be to realign the priorities of the game in Australia for the benefit of the sport as a whole.
Otherwise, we can talk about World Cup legacies until we’re blue in the face on this side of the world – if State of Origin continues to cherry pick the best Pacific Islands talent, we’re chopping the legs off one of the richest talent sources in the sport.
Perhaps the answer is for Origin to have a capped number of non-Australian players in their ranks, who have to be playing in the NRL. And, whatever the situation, international Rugby League has to come first.
Who knows, the prospect of a New South Wales jersey while continuing to play for England might have even helped keep Sam Burgess in the sport.
It’s an issue that needs urgently addressing.
There have been a host of positives for the Pacific Islands since their outstanding contribution to the World Cup, not least the successful inclusion of PNG Hunters in the Queensland Cup competition.
But if we as a sport continue to deprive them of their best players the moment they show signs of genuine potential, what chance of proper international growth has Rugby League got?