Zeb Taia calls for Origin eligibility overhaul

KNIGHTS back-rower Zeb Taia said it was sad to see fellow Kiwis turn their backs on New Zealand to play State of Origin, but he could understand their decision while the qualification rules were so easily manipulated.

The issue has been one of the focal points of this year’s Origin series after the inclusion of Palmerston North-born James Tamou for NSW for all three games and the selection of Auckland-born Ben Te’o for Queensland for the decider at Suncorp Stadium tonight.

They have both represented the Junior Kiwis, and Tamou (New Zealand Maori) and Te’o (Samoa) have worn the colours of their ethnic heritage on the international stage, but the financial rewards and professional prestige afforded Origin players proved irresistible.

Taia, who was born in Auburn in Sydney’s western suburbs, faced the same dilemma in 2009 when he was courted by the Kiwis and by City Origin selectors.

Raised by Cook Islands-born parents Tepe and Terekino, Taia chose black and white over green and gold and his decision was vindicated when he represented the Kiwis in the Anzac Test in Melbourne the following year.

Taia hoped the Australian Rugby League Commission clarified the rules regarding representative eligibility, and took the decision out of players’ hands.

‘‘Definitely it was a tough decision. Back in 2009, I got put in that position,’’ Taia said.

‘‘Obviously growing up, I followed New Zealand and my mum and dad were brought up in New Zealand and I just felt like I was a New Zealander, so that made the decision easy for me.

‘‘I wouldn’t say it’s a bit disappointing, but obviously guys like James Tamou, they want to choose to go play for NSW. It’s good on them, but at the end of the day it is a bit sad to see New Zealanders play State of Origin, I reckon.

‘‘Hopefully they can change that over the next couple of years, because there will definitely be a lot more competition on the international scene.

‘‘You want to see good games on the international side of things, but State of Origin is obviously a big stage and everyone wants to play that if everyone had the chance to.’’

Knights coach Wayne Bennett has named Taia to replace injured prop Kade Snowden against South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Sunday. Taia will pack down in the front row alongside former NSW and Australian forwards Willie Mason and Danny Buderus.

Snowden is expected to be sidelined for six to eight weeks after suffering a grade-three medial ligament tear in his left knee midway through the second half of Newcastle’s 20-12 victory over the Eels at Parramatta Stadium last Saturday night.

Taia has played 98 NRL games, including 92 for the Knights, but none as a prop.

‘‘Can’t remember the last time I wore the 8 jersey!! Maybe back in Jersey Flegg ‘03’. Really looking 4ward 2 the Challenge 4 the @NRLKnights!!,’’ Taia tweeted last night.

He was unaware of Bennett’s plans when he spoke to the media after training yesterday.

‘‘Mase and Snowy have been doing a good job,’’ Taia said.

‘‘Obviously losing Snowy for the next couple of weeks is going to be a big loss, but someone will step in and do the job for us, and obviously the guys coming off the bench have been doing a great job too, bringing that impact.’’

Taia, who will leave the Knights at the end of the season to join Perpignan-based English Super League club Catalans Dragons, said he had recovered from successive head knocks suffered in Newcastle’s past two games against the Eels and Tigers.

He clashed heads with Eels back-rower Joseph Paulo last Saturday night, having been knocked off his feet by a Benji Marshall clearing kick against the Tigers five nights earlier.

‘‘Obviously when it does come closer, it’s going to probably get a bit emotional, but I’m just concentrating on going out there week in, week out and performing,’’ Taia said yesterday.

‘‘I just want to finish on a good note at this club.

‘‘I reckon the fans deserve it, and when I leave this year, I don’t want to have any regrets.’’

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