Chase & Co happy to fly English flag despite doubters

England take on France tonight ahead of the Four Nations, but not everyone is happy with the squad

There was a novel feature about the England rugby league team that flew out to play France last night – an unprecedented variety of passports.

Four members of the squad to play in Avignon this evening carried travel documents from other countries. Amid the usual Lancashire and Yorkshire accents, there was the 'Strine twang of Jack Reed and Chris Heighington, the Kiwi whisper of Rangi Chase and the more hybrid tones of Gareth Widdop.

The England coach, Steve McNamara, has cast his net too wide for some, but he has come up with an interesting mixed catch.

Widdop, born in Halifax, but developed by the Melbourne Storm, was the trailblazer when he played in last year's Four Nations. The other three are set to wear an England shirt and mime the national anthem for the first time.

Reed, born in Keighley almost 24 years ago, is the one who is giving up the most. An ever-present this year for the mighty Brisbane Broncos, he was also an obvious candidate for the Queensland State of Origin side. "It was a big decision, but it really wasn't all that difficult," Reed says. "Once my mind was made up, I thought: 'Go for it'."

Reed's family emigrated when he was two years old, and most of his junior rugby league was played in the laid-back surroundings of Bribie Island. He was, by NRL standards, a late developer and had started work as a plasterer. "They think when you get to 20, you're knocking on a bit," he says. All the same, the Broncos saw something in him, and brought him through their feeder system.

What has happened since has amazed him. "I grew up supporting the Broncos, players like Darren Lockyer. Now I've spent a whole season playing alongside him."

Reed appeared on McNamara's radar early in his first-grade career and now looks suspiciously like a first-choice centre for the Four Nations. "I'm very proud of where I come from," Reed says.

Heighington, on the other hand, is very proud of where his father comes from – and it isn't difficult for him to remember where that is. The family come from the village of Heighington in County Durham.

Drawing upon that heritage is no sudden whim for the Wests Tigers second-rower. He has been down the representative route in Australia in the annual New South Wales trial, but for a couple of years now he has let it be known that he wouldn't mind a change of direction and of hemisphere.

"I had a couple of meetings with Steve this year and got a real good feeling about it," he says. "I know it doesn't sit well with everyone, but I'm very happy with the decision I've made. Now I just want to get out there and give it a go."

Chase is a different case from the Anglo-Aussies. He is claiming no family ties, just his three years at Castleford, a place which has become his spiritual home.

Born in rural New Zealand, he went through a troubled youth, with plenty of contact with the police, and moved to Australia at 15 to further his rugby league career.

"It wasn't until I came to Cas, though, that I really felt at home. I've never felt as comfortable anywhere and that's why I want to play for England."

Chase has certainly become increasingly comfortable on the field, cleaning up most of the game's individual honours this season, including the prestigious Man of Steel. But if his quality as a player is not in dispute, his "Englishness" most definitely is.

"I know a lot of people don't agree with it and they're entitled to their opinion," he says. "I don't claim to be 100 per cent English, but I am 100 per cent committed to winning the Four Nations."

Who is to say that, a few weeks from now, that will not seem more important than an accent and the colour of a passport?

Widdop happy to encounter a familiar foe

Gareth Widdop will have a surprise reunion with a Melbourne team-mate when he lines up for England against France in Avignon tonight. The Halifax-born Widdop wins his latest English cap despite being settled in Australia for the foreseeable future. On the other side, playing for France for the second time will be a face familiar from the Storm, Dane Chisholm. "We played together in the Under-20s for a few years," Widdop said. "He's a talented player, a very skilful player."

Dave Hadfield

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