NRL chief Dave Smith says the huge number of elite players with Pacific island backgrounds can help grow rugby league in the region.
Smith announced the code’s new Pacific Strategy plan on Wednesday alongside Jarryd Hayne and Sonny Bill Williams and said the high-profile pair have helped increase popularity of the game into an area that historically has been a predominantly rugby stronghold.
Dual code superstar Williams, who was part of the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup-winning squad in 2011 and helped the Sydney Roosters win the NRL premiership last year, is a huge name in Samoa, the birthplace of his father.
Hayne represented Fiji in the 2008 Rugby League World Cup and credits his time with the team as the catalyst for changing his life away the field and becoming one of the game’s best players.
Williams, who is recovering from a broken thumb, will fly to Samoa this weekend to kick-start the program while Hayne is due to fly to Fiji later this year once Parramatta finish their season.
“We’ve been thinking for a while how we might develop the game,” Smith said.
“Nearly 40 per cent of our players are from the islands so I think it’s important to recognise that and the development potential there is important for the game.
“I think it’s very possible that we could see a team from the islands in the World Cup final in 2017.”
Papua New Guinea – the only country in the world that has rugby league as its national sport – had a team in the Queensland Cup competition this year where they have more than held the their own.
Smith said it was too soon to talk about a team from the Pacific having a team in the NRL but believes the game has a chance to help introduce football clinics and education programs for children in addition to fostering better community links with local governments and businesses.
“PNG has been going for about a year now and has been incredibly successful,” he said.
“It was about the time being right and having so many players who want to give something back.
“We’ll be working in tandem with respective governments and making sure as the community benefits come through everybody plays their part,” he said.
“The opportunity for us as a game to make people’s lives better in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and PNG is phenomenal and the rich flow of players coming into the game means it is worth the investment.”