Fittler's Origin Blues in rare Pacific air

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Brad Fittler's 22-man NSW State of Origin squad have already set records, with players with Pasifika backgrounds making up a majority of the side for the first time.

Thirteen of the players in Fittler's side have links to Tonga, Samoa and Fiji in a reflection of how the demographics of the NRL have changed.

You need to only look back 20 years to the 2002 series and not a single Blues player had Pasifika heritage, with Jim Dymock and John Hopoate two noted names who had represented NSW in the 1990s.

"I think the first (Pasifika) players I remember playing for the Blues were Jarryd Hayne, who is Fijian, and Michael Jennings, who is Tongan," prop Payne Haas told AAP.

"It's pretty cool seeing so many Polynesians making up half the team.

"It makes me proud to be Polynesian and hopefully we can inspire more kids to stick at footy and hopefully get here one day."

Haas will start in the front row for the Blues alongside Parramatta's Junior Paulo next Wednesday, with the pair pitted against Queensland's Josh Papalii and Tino Fa'asuamaleaui.

All four are of Samoan descent.

Paulo takes pride in being both Samoan and from western Sydney but concedes that, unlike in 2022, there were few players who shared his background when he was aspiring to play NRL.

"As a Parramatta fan growing up I loved Fuifui Moimoi and I was fortunate enough to play with him," he said.

"You want to be able to inspire the kids coming through from where you're from.

"If I can change one kid's life or 10, you want to be role models on such a big stage."

Paulo is one of the game's best front-rowers, but he is undecided on whether he will represent Australia or Samoa at the rearranged 2021 World Cup in England later this year.

Given the mixed lineage of many of the games Origin stars, eligibility has never been a more fraught issue within a game where the inter-state series was once the breeding ground for the Australian Test team.

The rise of Tonga, who have beaten the Kangaroos, Kiwis and Great Britain under Kristian Woolf since 2017, has meant that now more than ever, there are players with split loyalties who are considering playing for other nations at the World Cup.

It has also given rise to the hope that the international game might begin to realise its potential.

The difficulty for players, however, is when they are forced to make a choice.

There is a Pacific Test on the same weekend as Origin II in Perth, meaning Daniel Tupou and Kotoni Staggs are likely to be absent from a Tonga team aiming to upset New Zealand.

Given the money on offer to play Origin - $15,000 per game - it's understandable why they might take that option over international football.

"It is difficult (to make a choice), if I get picked for the Blues (for Origin II) then it's a great opportunity for a young kid to play for Tonga," Tupou said.

"I can focus on Tonga later in the year. We want to continue on that journey with Tonga and go one better this year."


Fiji-eligible: Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Api Koroisau, Daniel Saifiti, Tariq Sims

Samoa-eligible: Stephen Crichton, Payne Haas, Jarome Luai, Junior Paulo, Joseph Suaalii, Brian To'o

Tonga-eligible: Tyson Frizell, Kotoni Staggs, Daniel Tupou.

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