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FEATURE 2023 may be just a warm-up ahead of Tonga's big Rugby World Cup charge

2023 may be just a warm-up ahead of Tonga's big Rugby World Cup charge
11 months ago

It’s interesting to note that the three All Blacks leaving New Zealand after the World Cup who would be considered to have the most years left in their respective careers, are all eligible to play for Tonga.

Interesting, because it’s not impossible to imagine that Richie Mo’unga, Leicester Fainga’anuku and Shannon Frizell star for the All Blacks in 2023 and then for Tonga in 2027.

And perhaps, what we may be witnessing is the beginning of an era where dual-qualified players, particularly those with Pacific Island heritage, carefully manage their careers to give themselves a chance to play international rugby for two different nations.

This, to some degree, was the intent of World Rugby changing the eligibility laws in late 2021. The voting members agreed that the credibility and integrity of Test rugby could survive a law change that would allow players to represent a second nation if they served a three-year stand-down period.

With the law immediately active, it has enabled high-profile players such as Charles Piutau, Malakai Fekitoa, Israel Folau, George Moala, Adam Coleman and Vaea Fifita to commit to playing for Tonga at this World Cup.

Former All Black Malakai Fekitoa will don the red of Tonga at the 2023 World Cup. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

We have also seen Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Christian Leali’fano and Lima Sopoaga pledge their allegiance to Samoa and Seta Tamanivalu make the Fiji squad.

But certainly, it’s Tonga who have benefitted the most from the change.

“We’ve got a new team now and we got some X-factors and we will be able to throw some punches I reckon and I think we just need to come up with a really good game plan and a blueprint to win,” Tonga coach Toutai Kefu said recently.

These players were all available for Tonga not because of any deliberate planning on the part of individuals, but because, when the laws changed, all of them, for various reasons, hadn’t played a Test match for either New Zealand or Australia for more than three years.

It was good luck rather than good management which saw so many become eligible, but what may now change, is that current All Blacks and Wallabies may make considered and deliberate decisions about utilising the new eligibility laws to ensure they can play for a Pacific Island nation at the 2027 World Cup.

This may in fact be precisely what Mo’unga, Frizell and Fainga’anuku have all done – planned with a clear vision of hopefully being at the 2023 event with the All Blacks and the 2027 tournament with Tonga.

One front-rower who will certainly have plenty to offer by 2027, is Atunaisa Moli.

And there may be others on both sides of the Tasman who make next year the last that they play for either the Wallabies or All Blacks to ensure they can keep alive the dream of playing for either Tonga, Samoa or Fiji at the next World Cup.

Ofa Tuungafasi, who was born in Tonga, comes off contract with New Zealand Rugby next year. The 31-year-old, who was born in Tonga, could still have plenty to offer by 2027.

Nepo Laulala is heading to France after the World Cup and at 31, he may yet have enough gas in the tank to turn out for the country of his birth, Samoa, in 2027.

One front-rower who will certainly have plenty to offer by 2027, is Atunaisa Moli, the Chiefs prop who went to the 2019 World Cup with the All Blacks but has battled with serious injury since that tournament and has barely played in the last four years.

Moli, who recently turned 28, has fallen a long way down the New Zealand pecking order because of his injuries and his younger brother Sam hinted a few weeks ago that a switch of allegiance was under consideration.

“He kind of let it slip, eh… that was just an in-house conversation… it would be special for mum and dad,” Atunaisa said.

Atunaisa Moli hasn’t featured for the All Blacks since the 2019 World Cup. (Copyright Photo: Ashley Western / www.photosport.nz)

“But when you have signed a contract with New Zealand Rugby you have to stay loyal. It’s been in the back of my head to play for Tonga, but All Blacks is first on the radar. Whatever happens in the future happens.”

How many others may consider a shift in time to play at the 2027 World Cup is intriguing to ponder.

Chiefs lock Tupou Vai’i, at just 23 and with Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock both leaving New Zealand, has a long future ahead of him as an All Black.

But who knows, he may end up going to the World Cup with the All Blacks this year and decide one in black is enough and commit to Tonga.

Sevu Reece, competing for a berth in what is a heavily congested back three, may decide he will have more opportunities to play Test rugby if he switches to play for Fiji.

Career planning of this strategic nature is going to become the norm because the change in eligibility laws has presented a pathway of sorts for dual-qualified players to play Test football for Tonga, Fiji and Samoa without it coming at an enormous financial cost – both monetary and opportunity.

Once players commit to New Zealand or Australia, they are no longer having to do so for the duration of their careers and that presents an opportunity.

It’s going to take at least a decade, but probably two, for the inequity in world rugby to level out and for the Island nations to be able to provide their players with the sort of payments, Test schedules and high-performance support available to the likes of the All Blacks and Wallabies.

For the time being, then, the best players with Polynesian or Melanesian heritage are going to still gravitate towards the All Blacks and Wallabies where they can earn a better living and stay domiciled in New Zealand or Australia.

But at least now, once players commit to New Zealand or Australia, they are no longer having to do so for the duration of their careers and that presents an opportunity to enjoy the wealth, fame and opportunity that comes with being an All Black, and then switch later in their careers when they have more money behind them and more status to leverage.

Certainly, it looks like Mo’unga is setting himself up to do just this. He surprised a number of people when at 28, he revealed earlier this year that he’s leaving for Japan on a three-year contract.

He’s been open that he’s going partly for the money, partly for the experience and because he’s insinuated that he’ll be happy enough to call it quits with the All Blacks after this World Cup.

France 2023 will be his second World Cup, one at which he’ll likely win his 50th Test cap and having been in and around the squad since 2017, he’s obviously relatively content that he’s ticked as many boxes as he feels he needs to.

Richie Mo’unga could be nearing his final appearance for the All Blacks. (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Which is why when he was asked why he has signed a three-year deal and not the typical one-season sabbatical that many of his All Blacks team-mates have enjoyed, he said: “Three years allows me both the best chance to succeed with Toshiba, but at the end, decide where things are at, and it leaves an opportunity to possibly come back for the All Blacks again.”

He’s leaving the door open to potentially resuming an All Blacks career, but no one in New Zealand’s professional history has been able to leave the country for that length of time and resume a Test career on their return.

And, typically, most players who leave New Zealand with a bit left in the tank, tend to never come back. They can earn so much more money offshore and few decide that they want to give up $1 million-plus a year for the $200,000 or so they would earn in New Zealand.

So the odds of Mo’unga returning to New Zealand and trying to make the All Blacks, are exceptionally low.

If New Zealand don’t adapt to that sooner or later, I think you’ll see a drop in the standard of New Zealand rugby.”

Richie Mo’unga

The odds of him extending his contract in Japan, however, and committing to play for Tonga (he is qualified for Samoa as well) are probably exceptionally high and he has warned New Zealand Rugby that while he is only one of three ‘young’ players quitting the All Blacks prematurely this year, that number could be higher in future and that consideration has to be given to allowing people to play for the All Blacks while at offshore clubs.

“New Zealand are going to have to adapt a lot quicker,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re going to see players leave a lot earlier and not be able to represent their country.

“We’ve seen a number of New Zealanders coming over to Japan, more and more every year.

“If New Zealand don’t adapt to that sooner or later, I think you’ll see a drop in the standard of New Zealand rugby.”

But for the moment, Tonga continues to be the big winner of World Rugby’s eligibility change and while, purely because they have been drawn in such a tough pool alongside Ireland, South Africa and Scotland, the ‘Ikali Tahi may not win many games in 2023, there’s a good chance that won’t be the case in 2027.

Comments

12 Comments
S
Stephen11 357 days ago

These laws are terribly unfair for the likes of Georgia, Chile, Uruguay, Namibia, Portugal, etc. Why do these countries have to face a Tongan squad where the vast majority of its players are not products of its rugby pathways and systems? How is these countries facing former All Blacks and Wallabies donning a different shirt fair on how hard these countries work to climb up the ladder with players born, raised and trained locally? World Rugby's naive change of laws to help the Islands is just a band aid solution that will heabily affect nations that have no chance of calling up top professional players based on their heritage. Sadly this is a massive blow to the credibility of international rugby.

P
Pecos 359 days ago

A great law, all power to those who want to use it though a 3 year international stand down in the huge majority of cases is a death knell. The cut-&-paste selection journey at test level marches on & will inevitably result in NZ climbing aboard in some highly restricted capacity later or sooner imo.

S
Sam 360 days ago

Win-win situation for Tonga most of all in addition to "jumping ship" to other teams like Jack Dempsey for Scotland from Australia. Speaking of Australia, at least them and NZ are technically "giving back" to the islands after the 3-year stand-down.

Therefore the only issue for Ikale Tahi is basically cohesion and time together as a team unit in addition to a better coach (no offense Toutai Kefu).

C
CO 360 days ago

This loophole is setup to dilute the strength of Allblack rugby and it's working well.

J
Jmann 360 days ago

When did the rule change back to 3 years from 5 years?

and frankly, playing for the country of your birth, or the country you have been brought up in is one thing. But the tenuous link between a person and their grandparents' country is a nonsense. Eventually you will just see the Island teams full of NZers and Aussies like it used to be. Or worse it will be like France and japan who just stack their teams with foreign players. That doesn't tell us how good their nation is at rugby - it just tells us how large their financial reserves are.

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