Written by Keith Whitelock
Photo by Photo courtesy of News Limited
News Limited recently published statistics showing the current number of NRL players of Pasifika decent is now 48%. This fact has created significant growth opportunities for international rugby league. To look at the simple statistic of the percentage of NRL Players of pacific island decent (or ARL and NSWRL when measured historically) is to look at rapidly rising parabolic curve.
In 1976, just 0.1% of players in Australia’s first grade competition were of pacific island decent. This slowly increased to 0.7% in 1986, 10% in 1996, 20.1% in 2006 and 48% in 2016. That’s a rise of almost 30% in the space of 10 years. Players of Pasifika decent are some of the most entertaining and skillful athletes that game has ever seen so is a major positive for the sport when looked at on from a macro level.
One reason for the rapid increase (and there are many reasons given this is a multifaceted subject) is that the physique of Pasifika People is very well suited to the game of Rugby League. Many Pasifika kids are strong and athletic from a very young age. They’re also often quite larger than other kids of the same age playing the game. This often gives a competitive advantage through no fault of their own. This reality has spawned a lively push for a weight over age structure in junior competitions as mums pull their kids out of the game at increasingly concerning rates.
Trials and implementation of weight for age divisions are currently being roles out all throughout New South Wales (NSW). New Zealand have had this system for quite some time now. It is hoped that this system will bear fruit over the next decade as Rugby league looks to stem the flow of young boys (particularly 13 years and older) leaving for lower contact sports.
Whether the weight for age system correlates with higher quality of halves coming through the system in future years remains to be seem. All we can do is take a snapshot of where representative teams are pulling their halves stocks from.
Whilst Queensland seem to have an endless conveyer belt of high-quality halves come though over the last decade (think Michael Morgan, Jonathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Ben Hunt, Ash Taylor Daley Cherry-Evans etc.) the same can’t be said about NSW who turned to James Maloney, a product of Country Rugby League (hailing from the town of Orange before moving to the Central Coast of NSW) and Nathan Cleary (who played a lot of his junior years in NZ). Cleary came through Auckland’s weight for age system before honing his skills in Penrith after his father took over the head coaching role at the Penrith Panthers.
When asked his thoughts about weight for age competitions back in 2017, Nathan Cleary backed the concept vigorously stating, “After my first ever match it was hard to even fathom playing footy because the skill aspect was out of the game,” Cleary said.
“It was all about whoever could run the hardest and tackle the hardest.
“If you’re just getting smashed all the time it’s not much fun as a little bloke.”
Tonga’s recent rise to become rugby league’s competitive fourth team has highlighted an extreme lack of depth in the teams halves stocks. Tonga boast arguably the best forward pack in international rugby league but a lack of quality halves has somewhat forced their hand into relying almost solely on a power game. Ata Hingano and Tuimoala Lolohea spent large stinks of 2018 in reserve grade and lack the game management skills that are available to Australian Selectors. With Lolohea signing with England’s Leeds Rhinos, it may require Tonga to name an out of position half (I,e Will Hopoate)
New Zealand struggled with a remarkably similar issue for years, also having to rely on a power game due to lack of depth in their halves. It could be argued that Stacey Jones is an outlier here, but Jones’ brilliance often came from his ability to win a game unconventionally through a side step or a chip kick (ala Alan Langer). Whilst the depth of New Zealand halves has improved over the last decade, true game managers have been a lot harder to find. Shaun Johnson and Benji Marshall are known more for their flashes of brilliance rather their game management skills whilst NZ have relied upon stop gap solutions in Peta Hiku and Tohu Harris at times in recent years.
The reality of the situation is that halves are much more likely to be smaller in physique thus more likely to exit the game at a young age, either through lack of enjoyment of the mums of the world pulling rank.
Will a game-wide rollout of weight for age divisions solve the halves conundrum in the years to come? Quite possibly. Has the increase in Pasifika kids playing the game been for the best? Absolutely, 100 times over. We now have a competition rich in culture, talent and diversity. A temporary shortage in quality halves is a small price to pay for the skills on offer in other positions.