Talking rugby league: The risk of playing by the rules

George Williams and Dan Sarginson have played for England - Willie Isa also qualifies

George Williams and Dan Sarginson have played for England - Willie Isa also qualifies

How about this for a backline: Justin Carney, Joel Moon, Anthony Gelling and Joel Monaghan.

Pretty good, right?

Plenty of points there.

Now imagine they were all wearing England shirts.

The Four Nations is months away but an article yesterday got me thinking about our national rugby league team.

Ben Te’o is in the frame to make his England union debut this weekend.

You may remember Te’o from his league days.

The New Zealand-born star played for Queensland in Origin – effectively making himself available for Australia – and has also turned out for Samoa. He’s spent the last two years playing union in Ireland.

Now he’s in the England squad.

England flanker James Haskell told The Guardian: “Any professional sportsman who has a chance to play at the highest possible level and pull on a shirt for a national team is going to want to be part of that. It doesn’t matter what accent you’ve got, what your name is or where you’ve come from. It is about how you play and acquit yourself.”

No, it’s not!

It’s about national identity.

I don’t blame Te’o, who qualifies through his English mum. As Haskell says, it’s a great chance for him.

But for everyone watching, everyone cheering, everyone hoping ‘we’ can get one over ‘them’, victories will become more and more hollow the more overseas players are drafted in.

Don’t believe me?

I’ve ghost-written two autobiographies of players who were Great Britain team-mates with Samoan Maurie Fa’asavalu. Both felt it was wrong that he played.

One went as far as to say he felt they cheated, even though it was all within the rules.

England’s football team has, thankfully, not gone down this route.

The league team has dabbled in the past (Rangi Chase, Chris Heighington) but, under Steve McNamara’s later years in charge, stayed clear of players who qualified either through ancestry or the three-year residency rule.

There’s an argument that developing nations need these players. Fine.

But I want the bigger sides to preserve as much integrity as they can, irrespective of what other sports are doing, other teams are doing.

In league, there are only 32 full-time pro’ clubs in the world and 30 are in Australia and England. Go down the residency rule route, and there are only two winners! Most of the full-time players live in England and Australia!

We’ve already seen the Aussies pick a Fijian, Semi Radradra, who qualified after three years in the country.

And with new England coach Wayne Bennett over here next week, I’m intrigued to know what he will do.

I asked him in February if he would consider picking overseas players who qualify.

He said: “I’m not even second guessing myself on that one. If the rules allow you to play for England, you’ll be considered.”

Rules are rules, however ridiculous they seem sometimes.
But I hope he applies common-sense.

And there are some overseas players who have strong cases.

I’ve spoken to Leeds’ Adam Cuthbertson, for example, and he sounds passionate about wanting to play for England – his dad is from Warrington.

There’s talk former Junior Kangaroos halfback Trent Hodkinson may be drafted in, qualifying via his English dad.

Hodkinson played for New South Wales last year and is a former Junior Kangaroo, but he may have a burning desire to play for England. I don’t know.

I understand players can have allegiances to two countries (Pat Richards was born in Australia but is passionate about playing for Ireland, where his family is from).

By contrast, the two centres I mentioned at the top of this article – Moon and Gelling, who both qualify through residency – have both said they wouldn’t consider putting their name forward.

Gelling made a good point about the residency rule; three years living here doesn’t make him feel English but hypothetically – down the line – if he settles here, marries an English girl and has children here, he may think differently. He may want to represent his English family, and that would be fair enough.

That would be common-sense.

So, as I say, it’ll be interesting to see which way Bennett goes.

I hope he doesn’t think like Haskell, that it’s all about how well they play. That it doesn’t matter what accent you’ve got or where you’re from.

It does. At least, it still does to some of us.

Good luck to the English union team this weekend when they take on Australia.

But if Te’o scores the winning try, will it feel as real, as genuine, as honest, as if Chris Ashton had scored it?

The reaction to Wigan’s six kit designs for next year has been, not surprisingly, mixed.

Personally, I like the chequered look modelled by Oliver Gildart, with the similar-style top worn by Lewis Tierney a close second.

Some people think Wigan are daft for having a wacky kit every three years.

And that’s fine. Sport thrives on debate and different opinions.

But there’s one argument which is a bit thin; this idea that straying away from tradition is something new.

It’s nearly a generation since Martin Offiah went the length of the field at Wembley – in a top which was definitely not cherry and white hooped!