Fresh from his man-of-the-match performance in the Super League Grand Final, the Bradford full-back Michael Withers has become the first Australian-born player to be selected by Great Britain after being included yesterday in the 24-man squad for the Test in France and next month's Ashes series.
Withers was not in the original squad named by the Great Britain coach, David Waite also an Australian but has forced his way in with a string of outstanding performance, including the hat-trick of tries he scored in last Saturday's 37-6 demolition of Wigan. "He's here on form. It's as simple as that," Waite said. "I have to pick the best available players and at no stage did I shut the door on him."
Withers was born in the Sydney suburb of Blacktown, but played for Ireland in last year's World Cup, qualifying because both his mother's parents are Irish-born.
The 25-year-old insisted that he was committed to the game in this country and felt at least partly British. "I've played here for three years, signed for another two and will probably stay for a few more years after I've finished playing football," he said. "It's not such a big thing picking someone born elsewhere. Other sports do it all the time."
There is plenty of evidence in the Irish football team, the England cricket team and the Welsh and Scottish rugby union teams that place of birth has long since ceased to be the defining factor in international sport. Australia, when they arrive on tour, will have two Fijians in their squad.
But the closest Great Britain have come to breaking through that barrier was selecting Tulsen Tollett, born in Hastings but brought up in Australia, for the 1996 tour.
Bradford also supply the other surprising name in Waite's squad. Their back-row forward, Mike Forshaw, retired from internationals after the World Cup, but at the age of 31 he has played so well this season that Waite and Brian Noble, the Bradford coach who is also his assistant, have persuaded him to change his mind. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't pleased with the way I've been playing," Forshaw said, "and when I knew how keen they were, I had to think about it."
There could have been a third player drafted in from the champions, but their hooker, James Lowes, had exploratory surgery on his knee yesterday. With Terry Newton not expected to be fit until the second Test at the earliest and Keiron Cunningham left out of the squad altogether following his hernia operation, that leaves Hull's Paul King as the only specialist hooker in the squad.
Waite hinted, however, that he has some positional variations up his sleeve, something that might become clearer when he names his 17 to play France next week. Among the unfamiliar names who could play a part in that game are the Warrington half-back Lee Briers and the Wigan winger David Hodgson.
In Australia, the Melbourne prop, Robbie Kearns, has confirmed that he is now willing to tour.Reuse content