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Having beaten COVID-19, NRL sets its sights on conquering the Pacific

Rugby league is already considered the national game in Papua New Guinea and the goal is for the sport to eventually reach similar status in Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands. The proportion of NRL players of Pacifika heritage is estimated to be about 45 per cent, a number that is likely to increase in the coming years.

Tonga has become a powerhouse on the international stage, compiling a team capable of challenging the “big three” of Australia, New Zealand and England at the World Cup. There are hopes that Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands and PNG will eventually enjoy a similar rise if young players have proper development pathways in their homelands.

Fiji will this year enter a team in the Ron Massey Cup competition with a view to advancing to the NSW Cup in future years. The participation of the Kaiviti Silktails, financed primarily by the Australian federal government, has been guaranteed after the entire team committed to a seven-month stay in Sydney to minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Tonga has become an international rugby league force.

Tonga has become an international rugby league force.Credit:NRL Photos

It is a huge sacrifice by the players, many having left behind their families and jobs to pursue their rugby league dreams in the third-tier competition. Having just come out of quarantine, the team will stay at Kingsford and has formed a partnership with the Roosters.

The Silktails became the first team from Fiji to play in a NSWRL competition last year, but they managed just one appearance before the pandemic forced the competition to close.

“There’s a big welfare component to it, we have a really big community here,” said Silktails chief executive Stephen Driscoll.

“Our home ground is Mascot Oval and when we play there on the weekends we want to make it a real Fijian experience. There are 150,000 Fijians in NSW and we’re excited to be playing here.”

The NRL will also focus on boosting participation numbers in its heartland Australian states. The clubs on Friday were told that the AFL had more than three times as many registered players, despite the NRL investing $40 million in its participation programs.

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