Pacific expansion to be a legacy of Four Nations success

The annual Pacific Test is set to be expanded to a double header involving Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Papua New Guinea in a bid to build on the momentum created by this year's Four Nations.

Samoa's performance in the tournament has underlined the potential of the Pacific nations to provide genuine international competition for the big three of Australia, New Zealand and England, and officials want them to continue to play regular Tests.

With no Four Nations next season and doubts over its future after the 2016 tournament in Britain, and including Scotland it has been proposed that Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and PNG all play on the NRL's stand-alone representative weekend that already features the Anzac Test and City-Country match.

For the past two seasons, the Pacific Test has been played at Penrith Stadium and this year featured Samoa beating Fiji 32-16 to claim a place in the Four Nations, while Tonga beat Samoa 36-4 last year.

By expanding the concept to a double-header, the four biggest Pacific nations would be guaranteed at least one Test a year between World Cups for which their NRL players would be available.

That 180 NRL stars featured in last year's World Cup shows the players support international football and want to represent their countries at Test level, and clubs have been supportive as most return as better players.

However, speculation the Rugby League International Federation favours the reintroduction of traditional Kangaroos and Lions tours at the expense of the Four Nations after the 2017 World Cup would leave players with little incentive to play for developing nations and clubs to release them.

The idea of staging a double-header is believed to have the backing of the NRL, which is committed to developing the game in the Pacific and will this week send a delegation led by head of football Todd Greenberg, Australian coach Tim Sheens and Parramatta star Semi Radradra to Fiji, where the game has been booming since the Bati qualified for the semi-finals of last year's World Cup.

NRL chief executive Dave Smith, dual code superstar Sonny Bill Williams and Sheens undertook a similar trip to Samoa in August and Rugby League Samoa president Tagaloa Fa'afouina Su'a said the results in the Four Nations had furthered interest in the game. The team was invited to meet Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi last Friday in Apia.

"Our people are very proud of the boys' performance," Su'a said. "It is like an enrichment playing against the three big nations in the rugby league spectrum and coming out with those competitive results. It is a reward for the hard work over a long time and people are very happy with the performance of the team."

Yet while 37 per cent of all NRL players are of Polynesian descent, only about 4 per cent were actually recruited from the Pacific islands and it is hoped those numbers will increase after the appointments of development officers and the establishment of the NRL's "League for Life" literacy and anti-bullying programs in schools.

"The NRL will have their own set-up, like having their own chief executive officer and their experts from Australia based in Fiji," Fiji National Rugby League chairman Reverend Immanuel Rueben told the Fiji Sun. "This is part of the NRL's Pacific strategic plan of setting up their base in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. The NRL will become the FNRL's development partners."

The NRL already has 12 staff performing similar roles in Papua New Guinea and is working with PNGRL officials to strengthen the national team, which must go through a qualifying process for the 2017 World Cup being hosted by Australia and New Zealand after failing to win a game last year in Britain.

The admission of the PNG Hunters to this year's Queensland Cup is considered a positive step and many of their players took part in the Kumuls side beaten 34-16 by the Australian Prime Minister's XIII last month.

That match has been an annual event on the rugby league calendar for 10 years and New Zealand are thinking of starting a prime minister's XIII to play in Samoa, Tonga or Fiji at the end of each season.

NSW Country has also been helping to foster the game internationally, organising matches in South Africa last year and Hawaii this year. ASamoa Residents team also plays an annual Test against the USA Tomahawks in Hawaii, while PNG won a Test against a Tonga side featuring the likes of Sika Manu, David Hala, Benjieman Murdoch, Peni Terepo and Bill Tupou 32-18 at Lae in October.

England-based RLIF chairman Nigel Wood visited the Cook Islands and Samoa last week before the Four Nations final in Wellington to gain an insight into ways the governing body could help their development. "At the moment the RLIF is in the process of developing its international calendar to the 2021 World Cup so nations will be in a much better position in planning their international commitments," Wood said.