Rugby League World Cup: Samoa’s glory run, and the part played by the Eligibility Rules

By Roddy Cairns - Posted on 17 November 2022

If you’ve been following the Rugby League World Cup this autumn, you’ll know that the tournament in England has so far served up all manner of fantastic matches across its various formats (Men’s, Women’s, Wheelchair). Unfortunately for the hosts, they find themselves locked out of two of this weekend’s three finals (their Wheelchair team being the exception, having crushed Wales to set up a final against France).

The men’s team’s tight 26-27 semi-final loss to Samoa was perhaps the biggest shock of the tournament so far. That’s partly because of the recent history between the two teams, England having thumped the Toa Samoa 60-6 in the group stages just weeks earlier. But more broadly, it was a huge statement win for a tier two team such as Samoa (who achieved zero wins in the last World Cup) to defeat England, who sit within Rugby League’s tiny ‘Tier One’ of super nations alongside Australia and New Zealand. Or was it?

At international level, men’s Rugby League has not spread its garlands very evenly over the years, to put it lightly. The only teams to have ever won the World Cup are Australia (11 times), Great Britain (3 times, the most recent being 50 years ago) and New Zealand (once, in 2008). You have to go back to the 1950s and 1960s to find anyone else even coming close, with France suffering two final defeats in that era. The dominance of the big three (England having since succeeded GB) is so complete that they are given an official enhanced designation as “Tier One Nations”, with different rules sometimes applying to them compared to their opposition.

Below Tier One, there are a clutch of nations who have ambitions to challenge them. Chief among these are the Pacific Island nations of Tonga, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa – countries which have historically seen some of the finest talents available to them opting to represent Australia or New Zealand instead.  That started to change at the 2017 World Cup, when five high profile players defected from Australia/New Zealand to play for Tonga instead, instantly providing the tiny nation with a squad that looked like it might be able to compete with the big three. A group stage win against New Zealand showed that the hype was real, and the newly reinforced Tongans charged all the way to the semi-finals before an agonising 20-18 defeat to England.

Fans of other sports may baulk at the idea of players switching national team, but it is something rugby league has tended to treat a little bit more liberally than the likes of football. International selection is regulated by the Eligibility Rules for International Rugby League, last updated in 2020 by the board of International Rugby League (the International Sports Federation for the league code, and the organiser of the World Cup).

The Rules provide a very liberal platform for a player to qualify to play international rugby league for a nation, with highlights including:

  • Players are eligible to play for the country in which they were born, the country in which one of their parents or grandparents was born, or the country which is their principal place of residence (where they have lived for 5 years and continue to live to some extent). This approach has allowed some of the smaller countries to call on players from their diaspora who are playing in the major NRL league in Australia (an approach that has served Scotland well in recent competitions), but also allows players who are playing abroad to become “naturalised” by their adopted home.
  • Players who qualify for more than one nation can elect both a Tier One nation AND a Tier Two/Three nation they wish to represent. They are not forced to pin their colours to only one mast and stick with that decision for their whole career. Crucially, though, players are not allowed to switch between Tier One nations – once you pick one of the big boys, you are stuck with them.
  • Players can only represent one nation per calendar year.
  • Players who are dual-qualified only have to declare who they will play for in an event such as the World Cup three weeks in advance of the opening match of the tournament.

The overall impact of all of the above is that a player born in Australia to Samoan parents can represent the country of his birth, and can then switch to the country of his heritage later (and can then switch back). Similarly, a Tongan who is also eligible for New Zealand can pull on his native country’s colours, without sacrificing the chance to chase the riches and potential World Cup glory that could come with playing for the Kiwis later. Whilst the loose eligibility rules could be beneficial to any team, the reality is that they tend to benefit the smaller nations, who still lose some of their best talents to the big boys (as is the way in so many sports), but at least have a means of getting them back. Tonga’s 2017 experience showed that, where an environment was created that allowed players to be competitive with a non-Tier One Nation, some established players would take that route - with positive results for the world game.

Fast forward to 2022 then (albeit the current tournament is technically the “2021 Rugby League World Cup”), and the benefits are clear. This time it is the turn of Samoa to be the darlings of the tournament, knocking out their neighbours Tonga in a tight quarter final before that thrilling semi-final victory against England. Their squad contains a host of players born in Australia and New Zealand, including former Tier One internationalists such as Daniel Levi, Josh Papali’I and Martin Taupau. On Saturday, they have the opportunity to go one further and become only the fourth name on the trophy if they can beat Australia – a tough ask, but the Samoans will be up for the challenge.  

In a sport with a relatively small geographic footprint, generous eligibility criteria can allow for a wider spread of competitive nations, because they allow professional players making their name in a small number of heartland countries to represent a wider spread of nations at international level. Few can doubt that the eligibility rules are making rugby league more competitive, with smaller countries managing to go toe to toe with, and at times defeat, the big three. That is evidenced by the current IRL World rankings, which has Tonga proudly sitting in second place, splitting the Tier One nations (Samoa are ranked a relatively paltry 7th, although you suspect that will soon change). The performances of these second-tier nations begs the question of what the limits are to their upward mobility: could the big three could be on the verge of becoming a big four, a big five or even more?

But for all that this new spirit of unpredictability and competitiveness is a boon for the sport, it could strain the Eligibility Rules to breaking point. The current system is set up on the basis of a clear hierarchy, where the Tier One nations are treated one way and the rest are treated differently. Essentially, the division between them pre-supposes that Samoa et al will not pose a true threat to Australia, New Zealand and England, and therefore can be treated in a relatively benevolent fashion. At what stage in Tonga or Samoa’s ascent does IRL have to consider upgrading them to Tier One status, thus ensuring that players cannot switch between them and Rugby League’s traditional heartlands (where most of them play and where many were born)? That would bring back the old problem of young dual-qualified players having to pick a side and stick with it, and could leave them back where they started if the lure of throwing their lot in with Australia or New Zealand proves too strong to resist. However, keeping the current rules in place in the face of a sustained Tongan or Samoan challenge risks unfairly disadvantaging the Tier One nations, ridiculous though that notion may seem. It’s a tricky paradox, and not one that IRL will easily resolve. Any changes to the Eligibility Rules are by a majority of the board of directors (Article 5.4 of the International Rugby League Ltd Articles of Association); given that the Tier One nations are guaranteed significant representation on the board (Article 4.1), it is safe to say that they have a route to revise the rules if they feel they cease to strike the right balance between the best interests of the Tier One nations and those of the wider sport.

However, that is a question for another day. Come 4pm on Saturday, Samoan fans in Apia, Auckland and across the world will not be caring one jot about the IRL’s Eligibility rules. They will simply be cheering on the Toa Samoa to what they hope will be a historic victory. It would be no surprise if neutrals and those with Rugby League at heart were to join them.