International rugby league could benefit from more players representing their heritage

John Asiata Tonga v Samoa internatioanl rugby league heritage PA

International rugby league could be more competitive than ever before if more players committed to representing their nations of heritage.

Rugby League World Cup organisers are confident of delivering the biggest and best tournaments we’ve seen yet when they are staged in England this autumn.

There’s already been a number of high-profile players commit to their nations of heritage ahead of this year’s World Cup, such as Brian To’o (Samoa), Josh Papali’i (Samoa), Victor Radley (England), Felise Kaufusi (Tonga) and Luke Keary (Ireland).

Leigh star John Asiata is another player who we could see at the World Cup. The 29-year-old was born and raised in Australia and is of Samoan and Tongan heritage.

Asiata made his international debut for Samoa in 2016 before switching allegiances to Tonga in 2019.

Speaking exclusively to Love Rugby League back in May, Asiata explained his pride for representing Samoa and Tonga on the international stage; and why he opted to play for both when the opportunities arose.

“I was born and raised in Australia, lived there my whole life,” Asiata said.

“My mum is half Tongan and half Samoan and my dad is full Samoan. I’m more Samoan than I am Tongan but with my situation about moving over (to play for Tonga) was getting to know my Tongan family.”

John Asiata proud of his Samoan and Tongan heritage

John Asiata Leigh Centurions
John Asiata in action for Leigh

He continued: “Being able to go to Tonga after our games against Great Britain and Australia was the best experience of my life. I was able to meet my family and bringing them closer.

“A lot of my family is connected again which is awesome. I think that was due getting my family to meet up and support me for my decision. A lot of people thought I was going to get backlash for changing over (allegiances) because when those two go head-to-head it ain’t a pretty site but for me to make that switch was pretty big for me. There was another person who played for Tonga and came to Samoa as well in Jorge Taufua so I wasn’t the first. It is one of those things where it is more than just the culture, it is your family blood and that’s why I did it.”

Asiata has been in stunning form for Championship promotion hopefuls Leigh this season. Who will he choose to play for if selected at the World Cup?

“My wife is part Tongan and her mum is full Tongan so I’ve got the best of both worlds,” Asiata said. “We will see what happens. Obviously I’m starting to find my stripes and play good consistent footy, so when that time comes to make a decision then I’ll make it.”

ASIATA: Leigh have re-ignited my love for rugby league again

International rugby league the biggest stage of all?

Asiata believes the international scene in rugby league could be even more competitive if more players decided to represent their nations of heritage and play for their families and culture.

“Imagine the game not just being Australia, New Zealand and England dominant,” Asiata told Love Rugby League.

“If some players go back to their countries, the international level and games could be very competitive.

“Obviously some countries get more money. Some people look at it and think ‘what is the best thing for my family?’ and then you have a lot of players that don’t care about that. It is all about the culture and giving the young kids hope that they can one day play for their country. That’s what Tonga have done and I think that will continue for a long time.”


The rise of Tonga

Tonga have enjoyed a meteoric rise under head coach Kristian Woolf. They reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup and are second in the IRL world rankings. They claimed historic wins over Australia and Great Britain in 2019.

“It is massive for Tonga,” Asiata said. “You see the games when they play it is full. Everyone comes out to support Tonga.

“It is a small island but the love the people have for the players but it is their country. No matter where they are they will come and turn up for the game.

“What we did as a squad was based around making change and being able to bring our young athletes to be able to play for their country.

“They’ve set a really good standard not just for their country, but for the other Pacific nations. If you look at the game now in Australia, there are a lot of Pacific islanders playing. It is crazy.”

The 2021 Rugby League World Cup, which was postponed a year due to the pandemic, gets underway on Saturday, October 15, when hosts England take on Samoa at St James’ Park in Newcastle.

PODCAST: Liam Marshall on almost giving up on rugby league, England hopes & Peet’s Wigan transformation

FOLLOW: Keep up with all the latest on the Love Rugby League mobile app and podcast

About Drew Darbyshire 8338 Articles
Love Rugby League Deputy Editor. Joined the site ahead of the 2017 World Cup and been a full-time reporter since 2018.


  1. Just another load of Aussies deciding to play for whoever because they can’t get in the Aussie side.
    You pick your country and then stick with it, tough. If you play once for a country, that’s it, decision made.
    Never mind that your great grandmother ninetyseven times removed was a miner in Wales. It’s all about who your mum and dad were, nothing else.

  2. What I don’t understand is the belief that having more teams artificially bolstered with lots of aussies and some englishmen means the international game is stronger. World Cups should reflect the strength of each nation’s game, its pathways, local teams, etc. What’s the point of Greece, Lebanon, Wales, Scotland etc playing at a World Cup if none of its players live or play the game there, if there’s zero pathways for young people, if the public doesn’t care? I found it bizarre that they insist on calling this an “international” tournament.

    • Hmm lets see. Oh yeah it’s to allow them to advertise the sport so it can grow in those countries which will allow natives of those countries to have the opportunity to represent their country in the future. Though you do fail to see that.

    • It is to allow them to showcase the sport so that the game can grow and allow the natives to represent their country in the future and for new clubs on a domestic level. Though you wouldn’t understand that. Clearly you are against smaller rugby league playing nations taking part in such event.

    • Yes the article does say his parents are Samoan and Tongan. The article also says he chooses to play for both whenever the opportunity arises. That’s flying a flag of convenience and can’t be right.
      What’s going on here is that the NRL is being trawled and sifted in an artificial attempt to create a World Cup tournament to rival football and rugby Union when the game is nowhere near as globallyvwidespread as either of those.

  3. What a great team line up for world cup thanks to Tonga for making this work for all the Pacific now they all coming forward to represent their culture Tonga Samoa raro or Niue and Papua New Guinea well it’s Conner be islader world cup

  4. Don’t mind if they’re Australianized, if they want to play for heritage nations willingly then I see nothing wrong with that

  5. Good for the game by a long shot if all these island players should go back to their heritage and play for the island nations. .
    Another issue, NRL administrators continue play down the huge potential for the development of the game on PNG. The Hunters in the Queensland Cup has 8 million fans – a whole nation! Which other NRL club or the Super League has that fan base? The 18th team must come from PNG in the very near future.

    • PNG becoming 18th NRL team never gona happen, because of the political instability of the PNG government the NRL isn’t going to take the risk of including the 18th team from there. If something were to happen domestically which led the PNG team incapable of competing in the NRL that would throw the competition into a farce. There’s too many variable risks involved they won’t take the chance, no matter how much the PNG PM panders Aussie PM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.