Irish rugby league team runs into anthem row

A ROW has erupted over the playing of the Soldier's Song prior to Ireland's participation in an international rugby league match in Australia.

The Irish national anthem featured ahead of the Wolfhounds' opening match against Tonga in the World Cup on Monday.

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Like rugby union and cricket, the rugby league national team has always been an all-Ireland entity and has previously used neutral symbols and anthems such as Ireland's Call.

While this was not denied by Rugby League Ireland, the administrative body on the island associated with the sport, a spokesman said the decision to play the anthem of the Republic during the World Cup tournament was made earlier this year.

Speaking to the News Letter, Limerick-based chairman Niall Cantrell said they "had no explicit desire to offend anybody".

"A decision (regarding the playing of the Soldier's Song) was made at executive level earlier this year," he said.

"The Soldier's Song has always been played at amateur level and it was a unanimous decision to extend this policy to the professional game."

Asked if the decision could be reviewed, Mr Cantrell replied, "nothing is ever cast in stone".

In a landmark match at Windsor Park in the same tournament eight years ago, prior to Ireland's victory over Samoa in Belfast, the Irish national anthem was not played and the Irish tricolour was not officially displayed.

Rugby league is predominantly an infancy sport on the island in comparison to its union counterpart and there are only two recognised clubs in the Province, in Portadown and Ballynahinch.

Of the current squad only four players are recognised as 'born and bred' Irishmen, with many players of English descent claiming Irish heritage.

Unionists have called for the rugby league authorities to follow the lead of rugby union and use a specially-commissioned song applicable to all traditions on the island.

DUP peer Wallace Browne said: "I personally think Rugby League Ireland should follow the rugby union line and adopt a neutral position.

"If the team is representing all of the island of Ireland then I think everyone should be represented."

UUP MLA Ken Robinson, who sits alongside Lord Browne on the DCAL committee at Stormont, described the event as "most unfortunate".

"This is something that perhaps needs to be addressed by the Assembly as when sporting events are hosted abroad, sporting officials are not always aware of the political realities here," he said.

An irate fan, who contacted the News Letter, believes the decision to play the Soldier's Song will have damaged the image of the game to potential followers in Northern Ireland.

"I think Rugby League Ireland has destroyed its credibility as an all-Ireland development body for the game and the Rugby Football League should now consider a separate development body, in conjunction with Sport NI, for the task of introducing the sport in Northern Ireland," he said.

Rugby League Ireland have confirmed the Soldier's Song would be played ahead of the team's second Group C match against Samoa next Wednesday.