NRL players’ Samoan loyalty spells trouble for State of Origin

Who knew the final phase of rugby league’s Pacific revolution would arrive to the sounds of Neil Diamond, but it did as the delirious Samoa players sang Sweet Caroline after exacting revenge against England in the semi-final of the Rugby League World Cup.

Samoan flags have sold out across Australia and the “685 revolution” (a reference to the country’s international dialling code) has gone international with street parades and “chee-Hoo”, the universal Samoan expression of joy, screamed at all hours in Apia, Western Sydney, Auckland and even in the American-Samoan colonies in Utah.

When they take on Australia at Old Trafford on Saturday (Sunday AEDT), Samoa will make history as the first new nation to play in a World Cup final in 34 years and also the first second tier and Pacific nation.

There are a dizzying number of narratives in play ahead of the title decider, but the most far-reaching is the potentially seismic impact of a Samoan victory on game’s international eligibility rules and its golden calf, State of Origin.

Should Samoa beat the Kangaroos in Manchester, they can make a case for elevation to tier one status alongside traditional powerhouses Australia, New Zealand and England.

Players would then have to choose between playing for Samoa or playing in State of Origin, and with most of the Samoans on good money at NRL clubs, the lure of $30,000 Origin match payments may not prove the siren call of bygone days.

The Origin model was hatched in the “us or them” monocultural 1980s and hasn’t adjusted to the fluid identities of migrant players. Labelling Australia-born Pacific players traitors or defectors ignores the nuance and exposes the lack of empathy that comes with insularity and a patch-protecting siege mentality.

If Samoans opt out of State of Origin, rugby league would arrive at a fascinating crossroads, according to Samoan-Australian Frank Puletua, the NRL’s most senior Pasifika administrator.

“The tiered system is flawed and creates complexity with an anomaly like State of Origin – no other major sport has a state rivalry that supersedes every other event.”

The rise of Tonga in 2017 and Samoa this year has triggered furious debate regarding their place in the hierarchy and for Puletua, the stakes are high. “If you keep placing Origin and Test footy against each other, there is ultimately going to be a decision that involves trade-offs because we can’t keep undermining the progress of the international game.”

For the privileged, equality feels like oppression and levelling up the international game at the expense of State of Origin is seen by some as form of treachery to Australian rugby league.

For others, the cultish devotion to State of Origin is stopping the growth of the international game by using the lure of playing Origin to bludgeon loyalty and enable the Kangaroos to stockpile the best Pacific players.

It’s not a level playing field and must come to an end, says Puletua. “If the Samoans are made tier one and are forced to choose their country over Origin, then the broadcasters for the first time will not be able to authentically market Origin as the ‘best v the best’ which will have ramifications.”

Looking into the future, Puletua sees the tier system being dropped and players allowed to nominate for any country. “My feeling is that the dial has shifted so much for the Pacific players that they are not going to pull back.”

Part of the reason for the younger generation of players declaring for Samoa and for their revival after the embarrassment of their opening 60-6 loss to England has been the team’s deep immersion in Fa’a Samoa, the 3,000-year-old Samoan cultural and social system.

Fereti “Fredi” Tuilagi, the Leicester-based former league and union cult hero has been tasked with “bringing the culture” to the current squad. Tuilagi holds the title of Lauaki, a high chief title from Savai’i, the cultural capital of Samoa, and his job is to complement the coaches by blending the team together through culture and tradition.

He notes that although some of the team have not been to Samoa, they love representing their heritage. “It’s their way of saying thank you for their elders’ sacrifices in leaving Samoa and opening up this opportunity for them.”

He has a couple of rules, including a strict one that all players, “even the shy ones”, must learn cultural dance in addition to practising the anthem and the fearsome Siva Tau.

“We Samoans love to express ourselves, so to see Joseph Sua’ali’i go from shy to dancing in the changerooms was joyous,” Tuilagi says.

Cameras also spied the teenage star Sua’ali’i sweeping the changerooms after the game with a smile, an act of humility in line with the team’s mantra and key Samoan phrase they are learning: “O le ala i le pule o le tautua” – the pathway to leadership is through service.

Tuilagi has worked in this capacity with Samoan teams for 20 years and he is the connective tissue to the “bad old days” of no budgets and no respect. He uses the power of story to build tradition, and to write the next chapter of the Pacific rugby league story.

“We use lots of stories to teach them about Samoa and the sacrifices of those before them, funny stories about bad hotels and no allowances and bus trips where the toilets overflowed,” Tuilagi says.

“They realise they’re a part of that journey and it fills them with pride.”