TORONTO — It's a sporting conundrum. The captain of Canada's national rugby league team is out of a job with his Canadian club because he is considered an overseas player.
Australian-born and -bred, Rhys Jacks qualifies to represent Canada because his grandfather was born in Toronto. But Canadian citizenship for people with such blood ties is now essentially limited to the first generation born outside Canada. So he does not have a Canadian passport, which he needs to avoid being considered a so-called quota player at club level by the Rugby Football League, the sport's governing body.
The 27-year-old Jacks helped the Toronto Wolfpack, rugby's first transatlantic team, win promotion by claiming the third-tier Kingstone Press League 1 title in its inaugural season this year. Now facing stiffer competition in the second-tier Championship, Toronto has bolstered its roster with imports who take up a quota spot that Jacks would have needed.
After failing to make headway in its arguments with the Rugby Football League, the Wolfpack reluctantly released Jacks last month. Coach Paul Rowley said they had initially been led to believe that Jacks would eventually be considered Canadian.
"We had numerous meetings with the RFL and they're not budging, unfortunately," said Rowley.
He says the issue comes down to the discrepancy in rules governing international and club play. The laws are far looser on the international scene in a sport that is struggling to spread its reach around the globe.
"At the end of the day they're desperate to get eligibility for internationals so that they allow it in one sense but they're not consistent on domestic levels," Rowley said.
Rugby league's roster rules are complex, especially for a Canadian team in a primarily English league. Like other Championship teams, Toronto is allowed five so-called quota or overseas players and seven non-federation trained players.
The governing body made one exception for the Wolfpack, ruling that players with Canadian, American or Jamaican passports don't count as overseas players. That makes it easier for the team to keep Canadian Quinn Ngwati and American Ryan Burroughs.
But given the newness of rugby league in North America, any local talent is essentially at the developmental stage. So the club has to look elsewhere for elite talent.
Rhys made 14 appearances for the Wolfpack in 2017, scoring six tries. Rowley said he was one of the most improved players during the season — a positive force on and off the pitch.
Jacks isn't the only player caught in the system. Rowley points to the case of England international Gareth Widdop.
Born in Halifax, England, he moved to Australia at 16 and played his first rugby league game there. Widdop, who captains the St. George Illawarra Dragons in Australia's NRL, would be considered a quota player back in England because he played his first game overseas.
Rowley believes someone will eventually challenge the regulations in court and win.
"In this day and age, it's almost discrimination," he said. "Because it's a restrictive measure against a young person who can't ply his trade. You're preventing a young person from working. How can they be right?
"We're supposed to live in a world where we're not bothered about what colour, creed or race people are. So why does it matter? It seems bizarre that in 2017 we're still dealing with these sort of restrictive nonsensical rules."
While sorry to see the ebullient Jacks go, Rowley has plenty of talent at the influential halfback position with newly signed Josh McCrone joining fellow Australian Blake Wallace and English-born Scottish international Ryan Brierley.
As for Jacks, whose father grew up in Canada before moving to England and then Australia, he is looking for a club Down Under. But he is not turning his back on Canada.
"I will definitely keep playing for Canada," he told The Canadian Press via a social media message. "Still very proud of my heritage."
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press