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Why I have sympathy for the Brits whining about Austin and Hastings

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Expert
16th October, 2019
3

I’m not a British patriot by any means but I actually have sympathy for the English fans who aren’t happy about Jackson Hastings and Blake Austin playing for Great Britain.

On balance, I don’t agree with them. But I know where they are coming from. Yes, Michael Withers and Tulsen Tollett were chosen for GB before the team went into mothballs for 12 years, but…

You can quote cricketer Ben Stokes – son of rugby league coach Gerard who went to the UK specifically to coach – all you like but rugby league has positioned itself slightly differently regarding international eligibility.

We take from the rich and give to the poor. We have rules the discourage players who change countries purely to be a rugby league player to then represent the country they move to.

When Semi Radradra was chosen by Australia, the period of eligibility to qualify for a country on residency grounds was extended to stop it happening again.

Rugby league has made such huge inroads in the Pacific largely because the best available players represent those countries, rather than being drawn into a developed team like the All Blacks.

Maybe rugby league isn’t different when it comes to British national teams but we want it to be different because of how we remember it from our childhoods.

Hastings and Austin shouldn’t feel targeted.

Blake Austin in England colours.

Blake Austin will represent England at the 2019 Rugby League World Nines, and has also been chosen for the Great Britain Lions tour later this year. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

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Last time Great Britain played, in 2007, Maurie Fa’asavalu was in their squad. He had moved to England purely to play rugby league and qualified only on residency grounds, making him a bit of a trailblazer in a way the likes of Adrian Morley didn’t like.

In that way, there’s a nice bit of continuity in the way this has come up again 12 years later with the revival of the Lions – and has stepped up a gear with two recognised former NRL players qualifying the way Fa’asavalu did.

The England Knights already sweep up players who might otherwise turn out for Ireland, Scotland and Wales and I spoke to a coach involved in one of those teams recently who said Super League players were reluctant to take part in World Cup qualifiers but were happy to sweep in and take part in the tournament proper.

This is a bigger problem than the Austins and the Hastings of the world.

The thing we need to avoid at all costs is players from tier-two countries moving to a tier-one nation to earn a living as a rugby league player – and then playing for that country instead of the one in which they first took up the game.

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England, Australia and New Zealand stealing players from each other, while annoying fans, is perhaps not too big a deal. Brent Webb and Brad Thorn didn’t hurt rugby league.

But what we really need is an agreement between the big three to not pilfer players from everywhere else.

But the Kiwis would tell you after the mass defections of 2017 that all bets are off in that regard. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad turned down the chance to play for the Cook Islands but jumped to his feet and packed his bags when New Zealand came calling for this weekend’s World Cup Nines.

And that’s with all players being paid equally, which we thought was going to be a panacea for everything. Turns out, one’s sense of identity might trump money after all.