In the 1970s and the late 1980s English players were all the rage in the NRL. Fast forward 30 years and once again it is English talent coming to the fore and thriving in Australia’s elite competition.
Sam Burgess, and his twin brothers Tom and George, are leading from the front as South Sydney challenge for another premiership this season. St George Illawarra’s Pommy pair James Graham and Gareth Widdop have been mainstays at the Dragons for several seasons, and Graham recently notched his 400th career appearance.
Ryan Hall is helping the Sydney Roosters defend their title won in 2018 while after a mid-season move his former Leeds teammate Kallum Watkins is finding his feet on the Gold Coast, a club that has had its fair share of Englishmen in recent years in Joe Greenwood and Dan Sarginson. In Brisbane ex-Manchester United junior Herbie Farnworth has debuted this year for the Broncos at the age of 19.
But it is Canberra where British exports are taking most of the headlines. The Yorkshire trio of John Bateman, Eliot Whitehead and Josh Hodgson, along with Lancastrian Ryan Sutton, have helped turn the Raiders into contenders once again. After a number of lean seasons, Canberra are back among the NRL’s top contenders and with Wigan’s George Williams heading to the capital in 2020, the English boom will only continue.
Fourty-five years ago it was the likes of Manly trio Malcolm Reilly, Phil Lowe and John Gray, Penrith duo Mike Stephenson and Bill Ashurst, as well as Cronulla’s Cliff Watson and Tommy Bishop, paving the way for Englishmen down under with their unique mix of toughness, work-ethic and skill.
In the next decade Garry Schofield and Ellery Hanley, both at Balmain and then Wests, Joe Lydon and Martin Offiah at Easts, and Kevin Ward at the Sea Eagles, who caught the eye. But despite a handful of players in the 1990s, the flood from the northern hemisphere turned into just a drip until 2001. That was when a fearsome prop by the name of Adrian Morley landed in Sydney and over a six- year spell emphatically stamped his name on the NRL.
Morley laid the platform for others to follow and they did with Gareth Ellis in 2009, Sam Burgess in 2010 and then Graham in 2012. All four did not just compete in the NRL but all became household names at Sydney clubs, match-winners in their own right and stars across the competition.
Burgess led Souths to a Grand Final win in 2014, against Graham’s Canterbury, and both have become favourites in the media. Ellis was revered at the Tigers and is widely regarded as one of the most successful and popular exports to the NRL.
As Watkins explains of Graham: “He’s paved the way for other players to come over here and challenge themselves. We always knew he was going to be a success here. What he did in the Super League for St Helens was tremendous. He was part of a successful team, and a big part of that success. We knew he’d bring that to Canterbury, and St George now.”
The appeal for English players heading to the NRL is obvious – a change in lifestyle, a chance to test themselves against the best players in the world and the huge financial incentives. The Australian salary cap dwarfs that of England’s Super League and the top players can earn more than £500,000 a season.
The appeal of English players to NRL clubs is also acute – they are usually cheaper to sign than their local counterparts, are fiercely determined and are prepared to sacrifice and work hard, leaving their friends and families thousands of miles away. They are also willing to learn, are tough customers prepared to roll their sleeves back, and are often not overcoached like many Australian players.
Widdop left Halifax at the age of 16 to move to Melbourne, making his name for the Storm before joining St George Illawarra in 2014. While the playmaker will return home to join Warrington next year, he has been pleased with the increase of English talent to the southern hemisphere.
“I think it's great for the boys to come out in the NRL and test themselves,” he said.
“And they're all playing really good football. It certainly helps English rugby league in general. Obviously, the Super League is not too happy about it, but at the end of the day the boys are coming out and performing well and enjoying their time and strengthening the national team, which is huge.''
The Burgess troika have given the Rabbitohs a new dimension, while Canberra’s quartet have given the Raiders a harder edge and made them much harder to beat. Now that the secret is well and truly out, that England is producing some extremely talented footballers, expect more from the UK to try their hand in the wide brown land.