Decision to pick Australia-born players for GB splits opinion

It’s approaching five decades since Great Britain got the better of Australia in a series.

While they aren’t facing the Kangaroos on this year’s tour Down Under, it’s the selection of three Australian-born players that has caused a stir ahead of the games against New Zealand, Tonga and Papua New Guinea.

St Helens full-back Lachlan Coote is perhaps the least controversial selection, having previously put his hand up for selection for Scotland, and representing them with distinction in the 2016 Four Nations, most notably in the 18-all draw against the Kiwis.

Man of Steel Jackson Hastings, who qualifies through his English-born grandmother, and Blake Austin are the other two that have proved their heritage and have been selected by Wayne Bennett with GB favourites according to the rugby betting online with 888 sport.

It’s split opinion – there are fans who feel that the selection of heritage players devalues the international game, and that while acknowledging the weaker nations do so, that it’s not progressive of Great Britain to go down that path.

While heritage players have helped progression in the likes of Tonga, it hampers the likes of France and Wales – who are punished for developing their own players and then coming off second best to the likes of Ireland and Scotland.

The issue some fans seem to have with Hastings and Austin is the perception that if they were good enough and/or wanted by Australia, then the Kangaroos would have been their first choice. We’ll never know that for a fact.

The comparisons has been made to other sports – where the likes of Ben Stokes who hail from overseas have become hero’s for England in their chosen sport. The difference is that there is a significantly greater player pool in these sports, and England was a choice rather than an option.

You do have to wonder why, given Austin has been eligible for several years, he’s never been in consideration before, particularly when performing well for Canberra in the NRL.

But the rules are there to say that you can qualify for a country through your heritage, and as such, if you quality, you should be picked.

It’s maybe a case of pride amongst some fans, who don’t want the long-wait to beat Australia to be ended by a GB side where Kangaroos fans can claim “you only did it because you had Aussies in your team”.

The focus should be on the return of Great Britain, naively cast aside 12 years ago as part of the master plan to attract more funding to the game via the individual home nations.

First up is the Tonga Invitational side, so-called following the fall-out between the country’s governing body and its players that forced tour organisers to step in and ensure the long-awaited return of the GB Lions wasn’t spoiled by political turmoil that is typical of rugby league.

They endured a lacklustre campaign in the World Cup 9s, suffering a surprise mauling at the hands of the Cook Islands, though England hardly covered themselves in glory either.

The Tonga side includes big hitters Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita, as well as Super League trio Konrad Hurrell, Ben Murdoch-Masila and Tui Lolohea, as well as Hull-bound forward Manu Ma’u.

For GB, the main headache appears to be at half-back – with Austin and Hastings going up against George Williams, Gareth Widdop, Jonny Lomax and Jacob Trueman for a starting berth.

Though Bennett has favoured Lomax at full-back for England, Coote is likely to get the nod, which could see surprise inclusion Zak Hardaker played at centre, given the lack of outside back options in the squad.

There are two just wingers – Jermaine McGillvary and Ryan Hall, who has played just six games all year – while Oliver Gildart is the only recognised centre in the squad, though the versatile Jake Connor is another candidate.

John Bateman, used at centre frequently for England, must surely start in the back-row given his heroics in his debut year in the NRL at Canberra, alongside club team-mate Elliot Whitehead.

Captain James Graham ought to get the nod in the front row, with Harry Sunderland Trophy winner Luke Thompson an option at 13 with Tom Burgess taking whichever shirt Thompson doesn’t get.

That would leave Alex Walmsley as an impact interchange, alongside perhaps Josh Jones, Chris Hill or even wildcard inclusion Joe Philbin, who could be a surprise package of the tour if he can replicate the enthusiasm and effect he has for his club Warrington.

With four games, all shown live on BBC, here’s to a successful return of the iconic Great Britain rugby league brand – and long may it remain.

Tonga Invitational squad: John Asiata, Andrew Fifita, Addin Fonua-Blake, David Fusitu’a, Siliva Havili, Ata Hingano, William Hopoate, Konrad Hurrell, Michael Jennings, Sione Katoa, Tuimoala Lolohea, Manu Ma’u, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Joe Ofahengaue, Tevita Pangai Jr, Kotoni Staggs, Tevita Junior Tatola, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Jason Taumalolo, Daniel Tupou, Sitili  Tupouniua

Great Britain squad: James Graham, Blake Austin, John Bateman, Tom Burgess, Daryl Clark, Jack Connor, Lachlan Coote, Oliver Gildart, Zak Hardaker, Jackson Hastings, Ryan Hall, Chris Hill, Josh Hodgson, Jack Hughes, Josh Jones, Jonny Lomax, Jermaine McGillvary, Joe Philbin, Luke Thompson, Jake Trueman, Alex Walmsley, Elliott Whitehead, Gareth Widdop, George Williams

Saturday 26 October – Tonga v Great Britain – live on BBC Two (7.30am)