Peter Smith: Decision to call-up Blake Austin is the right move by England
In the classic 1960 western The Magnificent Seven, a group of gunmen is employed to protect a small village from regular raids by murderous bandits.
Seven specialists are brought in from a nearby border town and (spoiler alert) the bandits are defeated, allowing the villagers to live peacefully ever after, at least until the sequel.
Once the Seven arrive, the villagers aren’t too keen on the idea of having a bunch of hired thugs running around the place.
When leader Chris (Yul Brynner) is told the locals have hidden all the women of the village, because they are afraid the mercenaries will rape them, he replies: “Well, we might, but in my opinion you might have given us the benefit of the doubt.”
One of the most frequently shown films on television, The Magnificent Seven is packed with terrific performances from a cast on the cusp of becoming household names; there’s action, outstanding dialogue and one of the greatest movie themes of all time.
What is doesn’t include is a scene where the villagers sit around and argue about whether beating the bad guys will really count if they have to hire in gunmen to do it.
When it comes to protecting your village from marauding desperados, it’s not the taking part that matters, it’s the winning. And so, finally, to rugby league.
This week Blake Austin, an Australian-born stand-off (for the purposes of this article it’s a shame he isn’t a scrum-half) was drafted into the England elite performance squad which is preparing for the 2021 World Cup. The England selectors obviously feel they haven’t got anybody of their own good enough to do the job so, like the villagers in the film, are bringing in an outsider.
The Warrington Wolves star is at the top of the Steve Prescott Man of Steel standings in his first season in Super League and qualifies for England through his maternal grandmother.
This has, of course, caused ructions. Not everybody in the game here is happy about an Aussie – which Austin is to all intents and purposes – being included in the England squad.
But it is not the first time this has happened. Rangi Chase, for example, was born in New Zealand and played for England after qualifying through residency.
It is also commonplace in other sports. An old joke asks where do England cricketers stay when they are touring South Africa? Answer, with their parents.
The England team which won the cricket World Cup last weekend included players born in Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and Barbados and, in fact, man of the match Ben Stokes only represents this country because of rugby league. Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, he moved here when his father, Ged, was appointed coach of Workington Town in the early 2000s.
Under the rules of their respective sports, both Stokes and Austin are eligible for England – and the selectors would be foolish not to consider them.
It’s good to have local heroes, but nobody expects the entire Rhinos team, for example, to be born in Leeds, so why should the national side be any different? In the 21st century, place of birth does not necessarily determine nationality.
Ideally, the England rugby league side would be full of players who have come through clubs’ systems here, because that would be healthier for the sport as a whole.
There is a valid argument that imports hold back local talent, but a large number of England’s next World Cup side is likely to be drawn from the NRL, even if they were born here. Maybe the problem in rugby league is the limited number of countries competing at the top level. In effect, Austin has been drafted in to help beat Australia. If the United States or Brazil were leading opponents it might not be such an issue.
Should Austin score the winning try for England in an Ashes series or World Cup final, would that victory be devalued? It would not, though it might give the Aussies an excuse. It would certainly be good to find out.