English Test veteran and Canberra Raiders captain Elliott Whitehead has weighed in on the issue of Origin eligibility from Pacific Island players, saying that even if the IRL does elevate Samoa and Tonga to Tier 1 status, it shouldn't impact their ability to represent New South Wales or Queensland.
With Samoa's charge to the World Cup final following on from Tonga's semi-final success in 2017, serious consideration is being given to the idea of elevating the status of these teams to the highest international status as a reward for their efforts.
But such a decision would likely impact the ability of previous Origin stars like Junior Paulo and Josh Papalii ever playing in the interstate arena again – a situation which could have a negative impact on the progress that has been made on the international stage in recent years.
As an Englishman, Whitehead has never had the opportunity to play State of Origin football – but he doesn't think Samoan or Tongan-heritage players should have such a restriction placed on them as a result of their hard work to help grow the game.
“If they want to represent their heritage then I don't see why they can't when it comes to international games and still play Origin when it comes to that level as well,” Whitehead told the Canberra Times.
“A lot of those boys have grown up here in Australia and played their junior league in NSW or Queensland.
“They should be able to do both.”
The Canberra Raiders had a large contingent of players at the World Cup, with nine players representing six teams. While all have undoubtedly benefitted from the experience, Whitehead believes former Dally M Medal winner Jack Wighton could go to new heights in 2023 after adding ‘World Champion' to his extensive list of achievements.
“Jack is a world champion now and he's been one of our best players over the last seven years and I don't think that's going to change,” Whitehead said.
“He's matured a lot over the last three or four years and turned into a really good leader.”