The revitalization of international football has given rugby league a priceless gift

Before the game, Josh Schuster told himself he wouldn’t cry.

He meant it too, he really did.

But when the Samoan national anthem rang out, and Schuster thought about his grandfather and his uncles and everybody in his family who had played for Samoa before him, and how he was wearing the colors they loved so much, the tears came out and he was not ashamed.

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“Words can’t really describe the feelings that you feel. If you’re not there then you can’t really explain the feelings that I was feeling out there singing the anthem in front of my family.

“It was the first time I’d represented my country. It’s probably a night that I’ll never forget representing my family and Samoa, especially all my uncles that represented Samoa, plus my dad.

“To get the opportunity to represent my beloved country, I’ll never forget.”

After setting up three tries in Samoa’s 42-12 win over the Cook Islands in Campbelltown on Saturday night, Schuster rated his night as “a million out of ten” and seeing him after the match, draped in the Samoa flag, you’d believe him.

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The sight would have converted even the most cynical critic of international rugby league, of which there are many, because it’s easy to compare international rugby league to rugby union or football. But to do so misses the point of all three enterprises. The three sports exist in different universes.

Rugby league will never be a world game like football and until rugby league Test matches can equal State of Origin in public interest, a transition that could take decades if it’s even possible, the international game will not be the pinnacle of the code like it is in rugby union.

Outside of Australia, New Zealand and England, the international rugby league has been run like a community sport for decades.

Everybody knows everybody. The crowd is packed with family and friends of players. You will see somebody you know. There never seems to be enough money, but everyone tries their best to make it work.

Even now, with more elite-level players representing Tier 2 nations than ever before, it retains that same energy in the best and worst of ways.

So often in sport we talk about community and family and culture – we do it so often, in fact, it’s easy to forget what those words really mean.

But to see their true power, just remember Schuster’s tears.

Or remember how the earth shook when the Cook Islands did their haka, and how the sky cracked open when Samoa responded with their Sivi Tau.

Or hear what the Papua New Guinea colors mean to McKenzie Yei, who debuted in the Kumuls’ mighty 24-14 victory over Fiji and crashed over for a try.

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“When I found out I was in the team I couldn’t speak, I was crying too much. This is my dream,” Yei said.

“As soon as I put this jumper on it made me into another man. It’s different. I can’t believe I scored a try. I was out of words for several minutes.

“I will bring this jersey back there, to my home. It is so special to me, to my family and my people, and to my beautiful country.

“I’m really proud, especially for David Mead in his last game. To win for him is big, and to win for the debutants like me is big.

“I would always watch the Kumuls play, every time, no matter what, and we loved Meady. To play with him … I do not have words. I love him so much.”

Mead himself managed to keep his emotions in check after crossing for the match-sealing try, but he retires as one of the Kumuls’ greatest-ever players after 14 years in the jersey.

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The veteran Bronco has played in 230 matches across the NRL and Super League, something he believes never would have happened had he not impressed the right people in his Kumuls debut back in 2008.

It changed his life, he said, and now at 33 it’s time for him to step aside and give the jersey the chance to change somebody else’s.

“This is their time now.”

Papua New Guinea showed real professionalism and poise to turn away a seemingly endless series of Fijian attacking raids, as Lachlan Lam starred at half-back with a double, while the Bati have unearthed a future star in Penrith full-back Sunia Turuva.

But these one-off games are about the experience as much as they are about the 80 minutes.

An engaged crowd does more to sell international rugby league than all the marketing gurus in the world combined, and while a little over 10,000 fans piled into Campbelltown Stadium it sounded like triple that amount.

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