Chris Heighington: Divided loyalties, divided opinions

RL five things

Tonga have been the team on everyone’s lips this tournament and they were mightily unlucky not to make it to the final. Boosted by the likes of Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita, Kristian Woolf’s side gave England a run for their money at the weekend and were, depending on your loyalties, a Fifita knock on/Whitehead strip away from making the final this weekend. The likes of Fifita and Taumalolo have brought the tournament to life in the red of the island nation.

However, neither of them are Tongan. That is, at least not in the traditional sense, with Fifita born in Australia and Taumalolo born in New Zealand. Both were praised when they made the decision to represent Tonga and so they should be, given the pride they have brought to the national side. However, when Chris Heighington put his hand up to represent England, there was certainly no fanfare and it was safe to say there was a rather cool reception when his selection was announced.

Many wondered why an ‘Australian’ was being selected whilst players like Matty Ashurst and Liam Watts, who both enjoyed stellar seasons, would be sat at home. The fact that Heighington was born in Australia was too much for some people and every England team selection with his name in it drew vitriol and abuse. That, rather unfortunately, was also the case when the England team selection for Saturday’s final was announced on Twitter.

Let’s not beat about the bush here, Heighington is no Taumalolo. However, he is a man who has played over 300 first grade matches in the NRL, has represented the NRL all-stars and who has been a Premiership winner with two different NRL sides. At 35, his best years are perhaps behind him, but he has a wealth of big game experience which could prove vital in Saturday’s clash with the Aussies.

Heighington is also a man with close ties to England. His father hails from the County Durham village which bears the same name as their surname. A place with only 3000 people, it is certainly much sleepier place than Sydney, where Heighington has lived most of his adult life. During the 2011 Four Nations, the forward was able to visit the place which bears his name and he still keeps in touch with goings on in the village today.

In an incredibly cruel blow, Heighington’s father is also suffering from cancer and is going through chemotherapy at the minute. When you think about this and the way Heighington appears to have reconnected with his heritage, it is safe to say that playing for England is something that the Newcastle Knights forward will not be taking lightly and it is clear from his interviews that he is proud to represent his ailing father. I am sure he would have loved to have been picked for Australia, but I am also sure that he is incredibly proud to represent England and proud to represent his father.

People have celebrated the likes of Taumalolo and Fifita switching nations yet those same people have poured scorn on Heighington. It seems not only a case of double standards, but it also seems to be unfair on the man given his personal circumstances. Judge the man on his performances, not where he came from. On Saturday, we need all 17 players to be firing on all cylinders if we are to beat the Australians, Heighington being one of them. So, instead of casting aspersions, let’s get behind the team and support them as Heighington and the rest of the boys look to do their families and their nation proud by bringing home the trophy.