Ten years and 336 kilometres separate Michael Withers from Jack Reed and Chris Heighington.
It’s a decade since current Penrith assistant coach Withers, as Australian as you like, was called into Great Britain’s Ashes squad. And it’s 336 km from Agen – where Withers went into camp with David Waite’s GB side – and Avignon, where Brisbane’s Reed and Wests Tigers’ Heighington are likely to make their England debuts against the French on October 21.
Withers never wore the red, white and blue due to injury concerns. Neither did ex-Illawarra hooker Phil McKenzie, touted as a possible GB selection in the late 1980s. In the end, the traditionalists had their way – how is an Australian-raised player to react when anglo-Aussie hatred is stirred up in a team-meeting, after all?
Lions great Garry Schofield has reacted angrily on Twitter to the selection of Heighington.
“Heighington's selection is a joke,” the outspoken veteran of 47 Tests for England and Great Britain said. “Not born here, not played here, never been here. Rules might allow it but rules are a joke as we all know.
“Don't mind Jack Reed though. He was born & bred here. But according to (England coach Steve McNamara) in League Express he'll pick whoever he can within rules.
“The thought of the English dressing room full of Aussie accents, which could be the case in a few years, is depressing.”
Well, Heighington has been to England – he first made it apparent he wanted to play for England before the Wests Tigers took on Bradford in the 2006 World Club Challenge. And Reed may have been born in Airedale, near Castleford, but moved to Ipswich when he was around three before his family shifted again, to Bribie Island.
That recent trend of foreigners being picked started in 2007, when then-GB coach Tony Smith raised the hackles of some by selecting St Helens Maurie Fasa’valu, a Samoan rugby union international. He played eight games for Great Britain and England.
But one Aussie actually did make it all the way through to the Great Britain team – and it’s likely you hear his voice on a daily basis if you watch ABC News 24 or listen to ABC News Radio. Tulsen Tollett, whose name still passes as rhyming slang for “wallet” in parts of western Sydney, toured Papua New Guinea, Fiji and New Zealand with the Lions in 1996.
"It was a bit different for me because I played in the comp over there and knew the other guys - more as acquaintances than as friends," Tollett told NRL.com.
"I didn't know how everything worked. The big issue the boys will have will be their accents, people trying to take the Mickey out of them. Team-mates will try to imitate them.
"But I don't think they'll have any trouble being accepted. Their achievements in the game already will earn them plenty of respect.
"My first game back after touring with Great Britain, we played Lancashire Lynx at Preston and some guy rubbed my face in the dirt and called me an 'Aussie twat'. I didn't know what to say!"
According to Queensland coach Mal Meninga, the number of kids with immigrant backgrounds coming through the Queensland system now is a major concern. Whereas Karmichael Hunt, Brad Thorn and (initially) Tonie Carroll all chose Queensland over New Zealand back in the day, current maroon youth seems more outward looking and adventurous.
Aside from Reed, Gerard Beale and Josh Papalii have opted to play for New Zealand, Josh McGuire for Samoa and Ray Thompson for PNG.
“Jack and the other five have pledged their allegiance to rival nations despite learning their skills in Queensland,” Meninga wrote in his Sunday Mail column. “It is a trend that has gone past the stage of inconvenience.
“The concern is especially pertinent given the large number of New Zealanders and Pacific Islanders coming through our junior development system.
“If things continue, my advice would be to savour Queensland’s current success because if more of our promising youngsters walk out the door to rival nations you may not see the likes of it again.”
Aside from allowing foreign internationals to represent Queensland freely – and Adrian Lam, Lote Tuqiri, Craig Smith and others have slipped through the cracks over the years – it’s hard to see a solution to the problem Meninga describes.
Immigration is far less predictable and structured than it used to be and foreigners demand and get the same rights as locals in a variety of fields – including sport.
In the French side Heighington and Reed line up against at the Parc des Sports on October 21 (yes, On The Road will be there), the fullback is likely to be Clint Greenshields – from the quaint village of Sawtell, NSW.