Anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that rugby league at top level remains an exclusively northern sport needs a quick chat with Tony Clubb. The Harlequins centre, who will play for England in their warm-up game for the Four Nations against the New Zealand Maori in Auckland tomorrow, has his roots just about as far from the M62 corridor as it is possible to get.
As a man of Kent, he had barely heard of the game before he was persuaded to try it with the Greenwich Admirals, but it took him just two matches to decide that it was the code for him. "I'm from a massive rugby union part of the country, but I played two games of league and completely dropped rugby union, because I realised how crap it was," says Clubb.
He had been regarded as a promising winger in union and has memories of standing freezing on the touchline, waiting for the ball to come his way. "But in league you can get stuck in and make things happen. That's what I love about it."
When he signed to play league for Harlequins, it was as a player who was quick enough to play centre and big enough to slot into the pack. It was as a centre that he was a surprise choice to play for England in the memorial game for Garry Purdham in Cumbria the Sunday before last – and the big surprise was still to come.
"I was ready to go home on Sunday night, but we were told that we would get a phone call to tell us one way or the other." Sure enough, his mobile rang and Clubb had to dash to London then back to Yorkshire to link up with the rest of the Four Nations squad. It meant cancelling holiday plans and arranging care for his two bulldogs, called, lest we forget where his cultural reference points lie, Chas 'n' Dave.
Clubb is not the only born-and-bred southerner on the plane to the southern hemisphere. Darrell Griffin learnt his rugby league with the Oxford Cavaliers. He comes from Witney, David Cameron's constituency in Oxford, and has had a message from the Prime Minister congratulating him on his selection.
Initially with Wakefield and now at Huddersfield, he has established himself as one of the better props in Super League. Unlike Clubb, he had been waiting for a call from Steve McNamara, the England coach, with a fair degree of optimism.
"Our coach, Nathan Brown, told us that there were of six of us under consideration. I knew I had had a pretty strong season. There was only one game where I thought I'd played badly."
He was going to Australia anyway, for his former team-mate, Michael Korkidas's wedding; then he got the phone call to tell him that he was going earlier and via New Zealand.
Griffin and Clubb are the tip of an iceberg of young players who have picked up on the game through the national presence of the Rugby League Conference.
It is there, however, that their current experiences diverge. Griffin's foray north has seen him become a member of a successful Huddersfield Giants side. Clubb, at least for the moment and unlike his St Helens-bound contemporary, Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook, has stayed in London and become part of Harlequins' recent struggles.
"It's been a difficult season. We finished next to bottom and probably should have been last," he says. It was, however, the club's off-field uncertainties that made him think seriously about his future. "Nobody knew whether there was still going to be a club and a lot of us were getting on to our agents to see if we could find somewhere. As soon as [chairman] David Hughes said he was carrying on, though, that lifted all the uncertainty."
Despite the disappointments of last season and the drain of players out of the club since, Clubb is convinced that Quins have a bright future, with more players with international potential following him through the ranks. He picks out the first Super League player of Albanian extraction, the teenaged forward, Olsi Krasniqi, as a particularly hot prospect. "I can't pronounce his second name, but Olsi is going to be massive for us," Clubb says.
The other question is who will take over as Quins coach from Brian McDermott, who has left for Leeds. Clubb believes the answer could lie within the England party, with the assistant coach, James Lowes, one of the outstanding candidates for the job. "Jimmy's a great coach. I'd be made up if he got the job," Clubb says. As jobs in rugby league go, it is not an easy one, but the new man could inherit an England centre to remind him of the potential outside the game's heartlands.
Morley expects 'tough' test against Maori
The England captain, Adrian Morley, is expecting a fierce battle from the Maori in tomorrow's game at Auckland's Mount Smart Stadium and predicts it will be just the preparation the tourists need for their Four Nations campaign.
In each of the two previous years, England warmed up for their autumn internationals by recording crushing wins over Wales, and Morley believes a strong New Zealand Maori side will provide more fitting opposition.
Forwards Lewis Brown and Sam McKendry have been released by the Kiwis to join Richie Blackmore's side, which will be captained by the former Leeds centre Clinton Toopi and includes dual Australian international Timana Tahu and the Super League trio of Castleford's Rangi Chase, Weller Hauraki of Crusaders and Salford's Jeremy Smith.
"Three are from Super League and the rest are from the NRL," said Morley. "It is close to an international side. It is stronger than Wales and France, so it is going to be a tough one."Reuse content