Fairytale that became a nightmare: Why NRL superstars lost faith in Samoan rugby league

Josh Papalii. Picture: NRL.

Queensland prop Josh Papalii says he would turn his back on playing for the Maroons and Australia to represent Samoa tomorrow.

It’s a move which has the potential to reverberate across the international game like Jason Taumalolo’s switch to Tonga. The problem is, Papalii doesn’t have a Samoan team he wants to go back to.

“100 per cent I would [return for Samoa over Australia],” he tells foxsports.com.au. “There are different emotions. When I play for Australia it’s the country I was raised in.

When you play for Samoa you invest a lot more, because I’m representing my parents, it’s what I am [a Samoan]. It’s more than a team.”

The Canberra prop says that he regularly receives texts from players he describes as some of “the best in the game” who are considering whether to turn their back on the riches of Australia and New Zealand to join little Samoa. “We have the potential to go really far,” he says.

“One of my goals is to get a really strong squad for the next World Cup. “There are some pretty big names who are keen to jump on board and help Samoa be where they should be.

“Everyone is talking about how good Tonga has been, but the question is: why aren’t we able to do what Tonga has done?” The improving strength of rugby league’s Pacific nations is indicative of the transformation the game has undergone in Australia in the last 40 years.

When Olsen Filipaina signed with Balmain in 1981, there were just three Pasifika – an encompassing term used to describe Maori, Polynesian and Melanesian peoples – players in the NSWRL. Now, Pasifika players make up close to 50 per cent of the NRL’s demographic and that shift triggered the recent debate about State of Origin eligibility.

In 2019, Tonga became the first ‘new’ nation since France to defeat the international game’s big three – New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain. Fiji is flourishing and Papua New Guinea are building from the ground up with Justin Olam the first one to crack the big time from the PNG Hunters.

For one reason or another, however, Samoa, metaphorically at least, seems to kick the ball out on the full every time it gets together. It goes back to Papalii’s question. Why can’t Samoa ever get it together?

A group of current and former professional Samoan rugby league players have raised concerns over their coach, Matt Parish, who according to them has not performed well enough to continue as head coach due to the poor showings in the 2013 and 2017 World Cups.

Things have become so bad that in February a petition was leaked to The Daily Telegraph calling for the sacking of Parish. The Samoa coach has a win rate of just 27 per cent since the 2014 Four Nations and the letter accompanying the petition stated it was “was a vote of no confidence” in his leadership.

The letter also cited a “lack of professionalism” and claimed he was “unfit” to continue coaching. Now the likes of Andrew Johns, brother Matthew, and Sonny Bill Williams have offered their services to lead the team out of their rut. Some players have chosen to accept call-ups, others would rather not and are now understood to be giving serious consideration to a boycott.

As Joey Leilua tells foxsports.com.au some players “don’t want to make a joke of themselves”. And they reach this juncture at a time when the current crop of Samoan-eligible NRL players is the biggest of any of the Pacific nations and arguably the strongest it’s ever been.

Parish, these players claim, is part of the problem, but by extension they take issue with the governance led by Rugby League Samoa. The Samoan leadership is refusing to budge, insisting in a statement on Tuesday 4 May 2021 that Parish will continue to coach the team for the 2021 World Cup.

Some players feel all that is doing is crippling a nation with the world at its feet.

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