Wayne Bennett says rugby league has missed a trick with a five-year call-up that will fail to cash in on incredible scenes over the weekend.
Legendary rugby league coach Wayne Bennett has hit the NRL as the game exits Pacific Island tests mid-season from next year.
With the Origin II NRL season paused over the weekend, the return of international rugby competition gave a huge boost to the representative weekend.
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But for the next five years, Origin will return to three Wednesday night games and the Pacific Island tests will be dropped mid-season.
It’s due to the new Channel 9 broadcast deal between 2023-2027, which wants Origin to return to its traditional slot.
On Saturday, there were goosebumps-inducing scenes when a sold-out Mount Smart Stadium was painted red by Tongan fans despite a 26-6 loss to New Zealandwhile Campbelltown Stadium was packed for the double-header in which Samoa defeated the Cook Islands 42-12 and Papua New Guinea defeated Fiji 24-14.
There were emotional war dances by players proud to represent their country and some great football on display.
However, Bennett, who has coached Queensland, Australia, England and Great Britain and was also New Zealand’s assistant coach for the 2008 World Cup, which the Kiwis won, said the bosses missed a blow.
“I think (ARLC chairman) Peter V’landys did a great job with the game, but they’re wrong,” Bennett said on Sunday.
“If you look at last night’s games and you look at the passion, mature men who have done great things in their careers and some great men with tears in their eyes.
“And you have to remember that last night not one of those players who played in the NRL had to play for their country last night. And there were some of the best players in the game last night playing for their country. Why was that, in the middle of the season, a tough season, it always is, why did they do that? Because it’s important to them.
“They embrace it and the game has to embrace it. At the end of the day, the game directs us, the game guides us, the game directs us.
“If you’re a young boy at home last night, and I’m sure there were thousands of them standing there watching with their grandfathers or uncles, whatever, same nationality as they are, you don’t think that would affect them.” want to become a rugby league player? You think that wasn’t important to them last night?
“The origin tonight will mean so much to so many young boys and girls in Queensland and New South Wales. And we’re going to take it away, it’s crazy stuff.
“I don’t get it for a weekend of the year, sold out in New Zealand, huge atmosphere. And the third game last night (Papua New Guinea vs Fiji), I could watch it every day of the week.
“It means so much to those young men to play for Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Cook Islands, Samoa. And suddenly we just pull the rug out from under it and say, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do with it.’
Bennett added that it provides another differentiator for rugby competition.
“The other codes don’t have this,” Bennett said. “We compete with ourselves all the time, we compete with other codes, other sports – they don’t have this.
“We’ve got it and we want to play with it now and think, ‘Well, what has it accomplished?’ What is the goal?’ Just ask all those guys who played yesterday, what’s the goal?”
Representing their countries clearly meant a lot to the players.
New Zealand’s Brandon Smith wiped away tears after the national anthem as Samoa’s Josh Schuster was imprisoned with tears streaming down his cheeksafter revealing he would be dedicating the match to childhood friend and former Manly teammate Keith Titmuss, who died after training at the age of 20 in 2020.
“When I sing the national anthem, I’ll look to the sky and say to Keith, ‘We did it, brother,'” Schuster told the Manly Sea Eagles website last week.
Bennett said the outpouring of emotion over the games was great to see, adding that administrators should appreciate fans and players’ appetite for international football.
“If the players didn’t want this to happen, they wouldn’t have appeared in the numbers they came in last night and in the quality,” Bennett said.
“Look at New Zealand’s backbone (Joey Manu, Dylan Brown, Jahrome Hughes and Smith), they’re four great players in every league in this country. And they all want to play for New Zealand, it’s been great.
“I was so proud that they wanted to play for New Zealand and Tonga. I just don’t understand why (they don’t want to go through the intermediate tests).”
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