20 Nov 2017

Pacific sides rise on back of Kiwis demise

5:07 pm on 20 November 2017

As Kiwis rugby league fans lament New Zealand's dismal world cup campaign, Pacific rugby league is on the rise.

Both Tonga and Fiji and through to the semi-finals of the tournament, while the only thing looming for the Kiwis is an independent review of just where it all went wrong.

The rise of the Pacific nations at the tournament has come on the back of several leading players opting out of playing for New Zealand and Australia going with their countries of heritage - prompting many to label them effectively traitors.

After a shock loss to Tonga in their final pool match, the Kiwis lost 4-2 to Fiji to be dumped out of the world cup at the quarterfinal stage - their worst ever performance at the sport's showpiece event.

Kiwis Head Coach David Kidwell and Kiwis captain Adam Blair, 2017.

David Kidwell's future as Kiwis coach is in limbo. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

So where did it all go wrong?

Ahead of the tournament the star NRL forward Jason Taumalolo born and raised in Auckland opted out of the Kiwis - deciding to play for his country of heritage Tonga.

The Kiwis were also missing former captain Jesse Bromwich and fellow player Kevin Proctor both banned by coach David Kidwell after a drugs bust earlier in the year.

How badly did they miss them? - on the face of it hugely and coach David Kidwell's future is now in limbo.

"It's not a short term fix. The Pacific nations have stepped up. Their communities come out and support their teams. We need to make sure that we are performing on the field so we can fill those stadiums with Kiwi supporters."

Tonga fans have turned out in big numbers to support their team at the world cup.

Tonga fans have turned out in large numbers to support their team. Photo: Photosport

The chief executive of New Zealand rugby league Alex Hayton maintains the Kiwis aren't broken but concedes the code will suffer locally even if it means the game is developing internationally.

"If we want to have a competitive international game which is what we are trying to do in growing rugby league at some point you are going to wear some losses,' he said.

But former rugby league commentator and professional player Peter Ropati said it's obvious there are problems within the side, the major one being a lack of leadership.

"There's something not right in the team. There's something that's terribly terribly wrong and when I listen to David Kidwell - and I feel for the guy - but he is so out of his depth and has no idea how to deal with this."

Down and out - the World Cup is over for the Kiwis.

Down and out the Kiwis world cup campaign is over. Photo: Photosport

Ropati said the rugby league world cup has changed.

"The bulk of the players are made up of professional footballers. Gone are the days where you might find half the squad are made up of guys who are playing out of Nuku'alofa or playing out of Apia, Ninety-nine percent of them are involved in the NRL or Superleague so they are quality footballers."

The Fiji coach Petero Civoniceva who represented both Australia and Fiji hopes this World Cup is the start of a rising tide for Pacific rugby league.

"It could be the start of something really special in rugby league. We've seen the dominance of those tier one nations for quite some time but now we have got players wanting to step away form tier one nations to go back and honour their heritage. It sends a real powerful message."

The former Kiwis forward Jason Taumalolo copped a backlash when he belatedly decided to play for Tonga rather than New Zealand at the tournament.

The Kangaroos player Andrew Fifita also made the same decision opting to play for Tonga rather than Australia.

But the Damon Salesa who is an associate professor of pacific studies at Auckland University says the Pacific community has been moved by the decisions of many players to opt for their countries of heritage - giving up the opportunity in all likelihood to win the world cup and make much more money.

"Many of the people I am around and myself included have been really moved by the decision of players, particularly those who would have made the front-line of New Zealand or Australia, - their decision to play for their ancestral Pacific homeland is really moving.

"They have put their connection with their homeland above any money they would have made and even perhaps the chance of winning a world cup."

Professor Salesa said while many players who opt to play for Pacific countries may have been born in New Zealand they may feel more connected to their homeland.

"If you actually walk the streets of Otahuhu, it's probably the largest Tongan concentration in the world. It's very very Tongan and there are parts of New Zealand that are just so profoundly Pacific - that might be driving them.

"I also think both of these players (Taumalolo and Fifita) have proved everything they need to prove and there's no question that by choosing to go with Tonga they made more of a difference to both the Tongan team and rugby league world cup, than if they had chose to go with New Zealand or Australia."

Fiji's Jarryd Hayne celebrates with fans after Fiji's win over the Kiwis

Jarryd Hayne celebrates with Fiji fans Photo: Photosport

Under international rugby league regulations players nominate a Tier One side, like New Zealand or Australia, which they will play for if selected.

They can also nominate a tier two team - like Tonga - on the assumption if they miss out on being picked for the Kiwis or Kangaroos they will play for a tier two side.

Damon Salesa fears that rule may now change.

"Both Australia and New Zealand, just as they do in rugby union, see (the Pacific) as a 'B' team for Australia and New Zealand and when you get called up to the A team, in their mind the All Blacks or the Wallabies or the Kiwis or the Kangaroos, you shouldn't say 'No'.

"What we have now seen is that people will say 'No' as there are other things that they value...and we are going to see more players contemplate this because of just how powerful this has turned out to be for tens of thousands of Tongans and I suspect there are a bunch of Samoan players, who when the next world cup rolls around and they haven't changed the eligibility rules, they will think about making similar decisions."

So while New Zealand league fans are lamenting the Kiwis demise, many in the country are celebrating - not the Kiwis being eliminated - but the rise of the Pacific - which will now see Fiji play Australia in Brisbane on Friday night in one world cup semi-final while the other will feature Tonga against England in Auckland on Saturday night.