Wests Tigers playmaker Jackson Hastings is among the NRL-based players England coach Shaun Wane will be watching closely when he visits Brisbane for next month's Magic Round.
After being forced to move to Super League to resurrect his career, Hastings has shown since his return why he won the Man of Steel award and if he can maintain his form the Tigers halfback could earn a ticket back to England for the end-of-season World Cup.
Hastings qualifies for England through his grandmother and after playing four Tests for Great Britain in 2019, he is no longer eligible for Australia as players can only represent one tier one nation (Australia, England or New Zealand) during their careers.
Former Canberra halfback George Williams, who now plays for Warrington, and his St Helens counterpart Jonny Lomax are the leading contenders for the England No.7 jersey, but Wane confirmed that Hastings remained in the frame.
“I am coming to Australia for the Magic Round,” Wane said. “I watch all NRL games and love the intensity.
“Many England qualified players are in form - Jackson being one of them. When he was with Wigan, I personally met him and told Jackson exactly what I liked and what I felt he needed to improve on in his game. That still stands.”
While Wane didn’t detail the advice he gave to Hastings, he publicly stated after succeeding Wayne Bennett as England coach that he would choose an English-born player over a heritage player unless the latter was playing too well to leave out.
Hastings delivers for Wests Tigers
It’s a position Hastings has accepted and after leading the Tim Sheens-coached Combined Nations All Stars to victory against England last year he declared his ambition to play for the host nation at the World Cup.
Since coming back from suspension two weeks ago Hastings has spearheaded the Tigers to back-to-back defeats of the Eels and Rabbitohs and will return to WIN Stadium on Sunday to take on the club where he was once touted as their long-term halfback.
He was captain of the 2012 Harold Mathews Cup team, won the club’s 2013 SG Ball Cup player of the year award and represented NSW under 18s in 2013 and 2014, alongside the likes of Tom Trbojevic, Latrell Mitchell and Tevita Pangai Junior.
In 2015, after joining Sydney Roosters, Hastings was selected for the Junior Kangaroos.
“Growing up, he always had that tag of being a future NRL player,” said Dragons prop Blake Lawrie, who was in the same year as Hastings at Illawarra Sports High and played alongside him in the club’s Harold Mathews Cup team.
“What happened in the past is in the past, but it is good to see him happy and back in the NRL playing good footy for the Tigers.
“He went over to England and did some great things over there. He played for Great Britain and got the Man of the Steel award so hats off to him. To be the best player in the competition is pretty impressive.
“He has obviously grown up and he is putting his best foot forward for the Tigers. He has helped them to two wins the last two weeks so we will be looking to shut him down on Sunday afternoon.”
Dragons second-rower Tyrell Fuimaono played with Hastings at representative level and said he was now finally fulfilling the potential he showed before finding himself on the scrapheap after unhappy stints with Sydney Roosters and Manly.
“He just oozed skill,” Fuimaono said. “He could do freaky things that not many people could do, especially at a young age – kicking and passing. He was definitely gifted in that sense.
"I saw that he was killing it in the Super League, and it is another test and step in his career to come back to the NRL and show everyone what he is capable of.
"He has gone a long way around it, but it is good to see that he is back in the NRL and finding form.”
After helping Salford to the 2019 Super League grand final, Hastings joined Wigan and returned to Old Trafford for the 2020 premiership decider against St Helens.
'From playing in front of 12 people at Blacktown to 85,000 at Old Trafford'.
Wigan CEO Kris Radlinski, who began his administrative career with the club as Michael Maguire’s right-hand man in 2010, was pleased but not surprised that Hastings was enjoying success at the Tigers.
“I watch the NRL religiously and the first few rounds were hard seeing Madge under so much pressure as I remain very fond of the guy. We had some great times together,” Radlinski said.
“One thing about Madge is that you will not find any coach working as hard. Believe it or not, the stress and passion he displays every single week is what he enjoys the most.
“That approach is not for everybody but I know that in many ways, it's that pressure and love for winning that is incredibly important for him.
“Jackson's obsessive approach to rugby league is like no player that I have seen. Sometimes, it will go wrong and may lead to cross words between teammates and coaches but make no mistake about it, it is his desire to win and get better that fuels his fire.
“Rugby league means so much to him and he is incredibly committed to his craft. His presence in training sessions make them better - no doubt.
“The personal drive between them both is so similar. Maybe Madge and Jackson are kindred spirits.”
Hastings has had an immediate impact at the Tigers and team-mates say he is a natural leader.
“He has made a massive difference,” Tigers prop James Tamou said.
“These days footy players are athletic, and they can do crazy things, but he is just a footy head through and through. He loves footy, he can speak footy for ages, he knows the game, he is always talking.
“Nathan Cleary and Johnathan Thurston were also good at just barking orders and telling you where to go - doing half the job for you. Jackson Hastings is a footy brain - his footy IQ is unreal - and it definitely helps the forwards when you are in that situation."
Tigers second-rower Luciano Leilua added: “As soon as we step on the field, he is the leader. We listen to him. His game management is up there with the best”.