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Will we see a return of the natives?

by: Joe Whitley, November 17, 2013, 4:59 pm

Were I younger and my ability to play Rugby League matched my passion for the sport I would have to be in demand to play at international level.

That would give me a very big dilemma because, under the rules, I would be qualified to play for Austria, England, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, the Ukraine and possibly Russia too!

I was born in England but my father and paternal grandparents were all born in Berlin. My maternal grandmother was from Lithuania and all the rest comes from my paternal grandfather.

He was born in the city of Lviv in the late 19th century. At that time Lviv was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Following the First World War, Lviv became a part of Poland. In the early days of the Second World War, Lviv was annexed by the Soviet Union (Russia) and at the end of the war it became a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic.

Now, since the break-up of the Soviet Union, it is located in the independent nation of Ukraine. I suppose it’s a bit difficult for people from an island nation like Great Britain to grasp the complexities of changing borders, but when we relate them to international eligibility rules we can see that they could become important.

And here’s the thing! The development of Rugby League in recent years has been really exciting indicated by the fact that all of those countries that I might theoretically qualify to represent have played international matches.

So wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day a World Cup could involve many more countries, all with competitive squads.

Sadly that day is a long way off, and it is to the credit of the Rugby League, the International Federation and the currently competing nations that we are enjoying such an enthralling tournament.

But sadly the international strength is not as it might appear. I’ve done some analysis of the countries of birth of the squads for the 2013 World Cup.

It showed just over 70 per cent of the players in all the squads having been born in one of the ‘Big 3’ nations – Australia, England and New Zealand.

Of course, geographical politics has a large part to play in this. The fact is that many people born in England have family roots in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

There are similar links between Australia and New Zealand and the Pacific Nations. The days are long gone when the majority of people born in a particular country could trace their ancestry back for generations in the same country.

What I find of greater concern is that New Zealand have a Tongan (Sam Moa) and a Samoan (Roger Tuivasa-Sheck) in their squad.

Another way of looking at this is to compare for each squad the proportion of their squad members who were born in the country they represent.

In the cases where the percentage of home-born players falls below 10% I thought I would name those actually born in the country they represent:

Scotland: Matthew Russell and Dave Scot
Italy: Gioele Celerino and Fabrizio Ciaurro
Cook Islands: Sam Mataora
Ireland: Matty Hadden

All bar one of the Australian and England squads were born in those nations. Australia have James Tamou, who was born in Palmerston North, New Zealand, and England have Rangi Chase, born in Dannevirke, New Zealand.

What I find of greater concern is that New Zealand have a Tongan (Sam Moa) and a Samoan (Roger Tuivasa-Sheck) in their squad.

Although it doesn’t apply to Australia this time, both Australia and New Zealand have a record of including Pacific Nation born players in their teams.

A classic case is the current Fiji captain Petero Civoniceva, who played 47 times for Australia. Surely it would have been better for the competitiveness of past World Cups if such players had appeared for the country of their birth.

Perhaps the International Federation should recognise this and not allow Australia, New Zealand or England to include players born in other competing nations.

In no way do I wish to appear critical of the make-up of the current squads. They are all selected under the recognised criteria and we have to accept that without the presence of Australian, English and New Zealand-born players in so many different teams we would not have the wonderful competition we are currently witnessing.

My point is, however, that having made this analysis, we will in future competitions be able to make comparison and measure the increasing success of Rugby League as a world sport if the nations are able to select more home-born players in their squads as the years roll on.

Research showed just over 70 per cent of the players in all the squads having been born in one of the ‘Big 3’ nations – Australia, England and New Zealand.

I’m sure the potential is there. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament has been the success of the United States team, and that they have eleven American-born players in their squad.

The American born players are: Gabe Farley, Kristian Freed, Michael Garvey, Roman Hifo, Daniel Howard, Stephen Howard, Judah Lavulo, Clint Newton, Mark Offerdahl, Tui Samoa and Taylor Welch.

The fact that Clint Newton was born in South Carolina may come as a surprise as he appears to be Australian. That’s not surprising as he has lived most of his life in Australia and he was only born in the United States because his parents were there at the time while his golfer father, Jack Newton, was competing in the US Open.

The Americans look so much healthier for the future than the Irish team, with not a single player born in Ireland. The answer has to be well thought through.

To excessively tighten the qualification rules will help nobody and would lead to embarrassments like the one I painfully remember from the 2000 World Cup, when I was present at the Boulevard to watch Australia thrash Russia by 110-4 It looks as though the 2013 World Cup will make a healthy profit.

Could not the International Federation and the RFL invest a substantial part of that in giving opportunities to talented youngsters from outside the ‘Big 3’ to develop their skills in the Academy systems that exist in the professional game.

That is what the sport of Rugby League really needs to achieve the worldwide status it deserves.

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