OPINION: It’s the final of the first Hybrid Rugby World Cup and tournament favourites Tonga face a real selection dilemma: who to choose at fullback from Israel Folau, Charles Piutau or William Hopoate?
Eligibility rules allow participants to choose between the land of their birth or their ancestral home, leading to a sleepless night for Tonga co-coaches and selectors Doug Howlett and Kristian Woolf.
A steadying prayer from team chaplain Viliami Ofahengaue eventually leads to a sensible solution: Give Folau the fullback guernsey. Plunk Piutau and Hopoate on the wings.
Backrow’s a no-brainer – North Queensland Cowboys wrecking ball Jason Taumalolo packs down with England rugby No 8 Billy Vunipola and Wales’ Taulupe Faletau.
Frontrow’s an embarrassment of riches – props Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Mako Vunipola from rugby union ranks, Andrew Fifita, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Sam Moa from the NRL talent incubator and a handy hooker, Tatafu Polota-Nau.
Or move Fifita to the second row with his namesake – rangy All Black rookie Vaea Fifita.
Hand the halves jobs to Newcastle Falcons halfback Sonatane Takula and Wests Tigers pivot Tuimoala Lolohea.
Set Michael Jennings loose in midfield with Nafi Tuitavake or Mahe Fonua.
Tonga boasts just over 100,000 people at home. There’s another 80,000 of Tonga descent living in New Zealand and plenty of expats in Australia.
Yet Tonga could easily lay a claim to being the best “rugby” nation in the world (per capita) if you take in its talent across the two codes.
That’s hardly a surprise when you consider some of the finest footballers to pull on a pair of boots had Tongan lineage. Witness the late, great Jonah Lomu, the All Blacks’ top try-scorer Howlett and Ofahengaue, the teak tough Wallabies flanker).
If promoters are prepared to put up $50 million for a Hybrid Rugby game between the All Blacks and Australia’s Kangaroos, what price Tonga v Fiji?
Tonga’s sensational start to the RLWC – marked by a first-ever win over the Kiwis – has breathed life into the international game.
The Mate Ma’a’s rise should also give the World Rugby board a bit of a clue as to how to spice up union’s own World Cup competition.
It’s been fashionable among rugby union ideologues to mock the RLWC because rules allow serial waka jumping by dual-qualified players, who can switch their allegiances at a whim.
We’ve all heard the hoary chestnut: “How would the Rugby League World Cup look if everyone had to play for the country of their birth?”.
It’d be more boring, for a start.
Besides, if that eligibility edict was imposed at the Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks would be fronting without Fifita and Tu’ungafasi (both born in Tonga) and Fijian wing Waisake Naholo.
The Wallabies could field Folau and Polota-Nau, but not Karmichael Hunt and Lukhan Tui (New Zealand) or wings Henry Speight and Marika Koroibete (Fiji).
England would need a new skipper – Rotorua native Dylan Hartley would be ruled out, along with Kiwi compatriots Ben Te’o and Denny Solomona, Nathan Hughes (Fiji) and the Vunipola brothers, Billy (Brisbane) and Mako (Wellington).
Ireland wouldn’t have abrasive No 8 C J Stander (South Africa), new cap Bundee Aki or fellow Kiwi Jared Payne. Auckland-born utility back Joey Carbery would have to be scratched despite moving to County Kildare with his folks at 11.
France would forego massive prop Uini Atonio, born and raised in Timaru, fullback Scott Spedding (South Africa) and Fiji wing Virimi Vakatawa to make but a few.
Scotland couldn’t call on Kilted Kiwis Sean Maitland, Blair Cowan or Simon Bergahn or South African forwards W P Nel and Josh Strauss, let alone their Anglo Scots.
Sorry, Sergio Parisse – you’d have to play for Argentina, not Italy ( a small mercy, señor, in the twilight of your career).
Among the top tier (provided they still qualify under the Trade Description Act), the Pumas and Springboks would be least affected.
The Boks would have to flick Ghana-born wing Raymond Rhule, which might not be a bad thing – it’d give him more time to learn how to tackle.
If the native-born eligibility also applied to coaches, then the World Cup would be poorer without Joe Schmidt, Warren Gatland, Eddie Jones and Conor O’Shea.
So rather than scoff at rugby league’s revolving door eligibility criteria, rugby union’s brain trust might like to look at tweaking their own restrictive practice.
They currently (and correctly) allow individuals to represent their country of citizenship – hence Pasifika-born players can turn out for the All Blacks, England and Australia.
Like football’s governing body, Fifa, World Rugby prevents a player from representing more than one nation at senior level.
That may works for football, which has enough depth to field a highly successful World Cup.
But it’s risible for rugby union whose World Cup features far too many mismatches prior to the playoff stages.
World Rugby allows anyone to play for the country of their grandfather’s birth (and nothing wrong with that) provided they haven’t been previously capped at senior level. Yet a Pasifikia-born player with a token test appearance for a tier one team can never play for the land of their birth.
Is that fair? Especially, those whose sole cap amounted to a few minutes off the bench.
Wouldn’t international rugby union be much better off if Charles Piutau could turn out for Tonga at the next World Cup and Julian Savea for Samoa, if unwanted by the All Blacks?
Get a player to declare their allegiance at the start of each season. They’d have to stick with it unless they weren’t selected for their first-choice team.
It would make for a better Rugby World Cup to have the Pacific Island teams more competitive.
It’s certainly given the Rugby League edition a long overdue shot in the arm.