Unless he happens to be a student of Barcelona FC, Callum Sheedy will probably have never heard of Laszlo Kubala. Different footballers, different times but the same grass-hopper mentality towards national allegiance, the same identity issues.
Sheedy’s England selection for the annual try bonanza against the Barbarians means that over a period of seven years he will have represented three countries, a fact made all the more unusual given that he has taken care not to commit to any of them.
Kubala performed the same improbable hat-trick over exactly the same period, albeit at a very different time in a very different environment which enabled him to find enough loopholes to jump from country to country to country.
Sheedy, born and raised in Cardiff to a Welsh-Irish family, played age grade rugby for both countries before qualifying for England after meeting the necessary residential criteria through his time as a Bear in Bristol. His Irish forebears allowed him to play for Ireland before he did the same with Wales.
Kubala, born in Budapest to Slovak-Hungarian parents, moved to Czechoslovakia as an 18-year-old at the end of the Second World War and jumped straight into the national team. Two years later, he was back in Budapest, playing for Hungary but in no mood to hang around for long.
He resurfaced in Spain and played such a leading role in Barcelona’s emergence as a superpower that a few years ago a panel of experts voted him the club’s greatest player and that at a time when the alternatives included Lionel Messi.
Kubala, whose collection of countries prompted FIFA to tighten up the regulations long before rugby got round to doing the same with theirs, died in 2002 at the age of 74.
By then he had made one reported attempt to justify lining up under so many flags: “I am a man of no homeland because my country is under Communism.’’
Whatever the reason for Sheedy’s refusal to pledge allegiance to his home country, it can be assumed that Communism is not one of them. The uncertainty raises a wider issue, a highly emotive one which divides opinion.
The old-school argument has never changed, that you play for the country of your birth or, in unusual circumstances, for another country as a mark of gratitude for its effect on your life. Rupert Moon’s conversion from Walsall in the Black Country to Red Dragon is a classic example.
The counter argument, as voiced by hard-headed professionals aided and abetted by their agents, reduces everything to a commercial decision. The way they see it, allegiance to one country at the expense of another is a matter of where the player will be better off, not emotionally or historically but financially.
Nobody, for one moment, is suggesting Sheedy has anything other than perfectly legitimate reasons for holding fire on a decision and many will admire him for his commonsense. For a start, he may not be good enough to play for his preferred option.
His success in helping the Bears survive in the jungle of the Premiership leaves no doubt that his star is on the rise, not that the man himself has said much about the variety of glittering options open to him.
“It’s obviously a strange position I am in, isn’t it?’’ he was quoted as saying some months ago. “But, honestly, I haven’t thought about it at all.’’
Not at all, honestly? Clearly Sheedy thought good and hard about ‘it’ before arriving at a conclusion which did not endear him to Wales or their supporters. In 2015 he withdrew from their U20 team because the alternative would have been to commit to his future to the Red Dragons.
By then he was in the English system at Bristol via Millfield, the renowned school in Somerset where Sir Gareth Edwards made such an impression that in next to no time he was competing for England as a schoolboy athlete. There was never the remotest danger of Edwards playing rugby for England, not least because such a conversion has long been viewed in Welsh rugby as the ultimate betrayal. One notable exception springs to mind.
Dewi Morris won a Grand Slam with England and finished up in the team run over by Jonah Lomu during the semi-finals of the 1995 World Cup in Cape Town. He is no less a Welshman for that because, unlike Sheedy, playing for Wales was never an option for Morris.
After school in his native Powys, the unknown No.9 went to Alsager College without ever registering on the Welsh radar. Even when the future Test Lion started scaling the English pyramid, from Winnington Park in Manchester to Sale via Liverpool-St Helens, his Welsh profile remained not so much low as subterranean.
When England capped him in late Eighties, nobody in Wales batted an eyelid except the one-eyed few who gave him an undeservedly hard time without, one suspects, taking the trouble to understand his background.
Had Wales recognised Morris at schoolboy level, it would almost certainly have been very different except he was never considered good enough during his time at Brecon High School.
Sheedy, in contrast, has been highly valued from the very start, his promise at Corpus Christi school in Cardiff leading to a place at the Blues academy. Whether he saw a greener kind of grass on the far side of The Bridge only he knows but England’s interest in claiming him as one of their own confirms his rising status within the Premiership.
As an uncapped match, Sheedy can take part and still keep every option open, Welsh and Irish as well as English. That he is prepared to flirt with the old enemy ought to be seen as an ominous sign for those running the Welsh assembly-line in the Vale of Glamorgan.
It is reasonable to assume that England would not have gone to the trouble of picking Sheedy without first inquiring as to the player’s international ambitions. The Red Rose route is hardly a short-cut into the Test arena, not when it means taking his place behind Owen Farrell, George Ford and Danny Cipriani.
Choosing Ireland would mean playing there, a pre-requisite which would hardly cause much inconvenience for Sheedy given that his Bristol contract runs out next year. As for Wales, head coach-elect Wayne Pivac will want to know whether the fly-half still has the heart to play for his homeland four years after turning them down.
At 23 Sheedy may have the rugby world at his feet but he is fast approaching the time when he needs to make his mind up. The longer he leaves it, the greater the danger of England making it up for him.
PETER JACKSON / Photo: Getty Images
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