The irony that Reagan Campbell-Gillard will represent Australia for the first time in Fiji is not lost on the powerhouse Panthers prop forward, but he says he had already decided to not play for the Bati in the Rugby League World Cup.
When Andrew Fifita sensationally withdrew from the Kangaroos after being selected so that he could instead play for Tonga, one-time Fijian Test representative Campbell-Gillard was called into the squad.
But rather than denying the Fiji team another significant presence in the middle of the field, Campbell-Gillard told NRL.com that he and Penrith coach Anthony Griffin had agreed that he would not play for the nation of his mother Georgina’s heritage.
As it happens, Georgina was in Fiji on holiday when Campbell-Gillard received his maiden call-up into the Kangaroos team and will extend her stay in her homeland so that she can see her son take part in a historic three-match series in Suva on Saturday.
Papua New Guinea will first play Fiji in a 40-minute match, after which the Kumuls will face the Kangaroos and then Australia will play the Bati to round out a unique concept that was the brainchild of Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga.
It is the first time a Kangaroos team has played in Fiji and Campbell-Gillard insists that his selection for Australia came with the full blessing of his mum.
“She’s always supported me in everything that I’ve done and she’s got full confidence in the decisions that I make.
“I never thought I was going to be in this team and to go over there to Fiji and play there should be pretty good. I’m pretty sure the Fijians will be pretty vocal and very loud.”
Named the Dally M Bench Player of the Year, the Sydney-born 24-year-old played his lone Test for Fiji against Samoa back in 2014 but said he didn’t feel the compulsion to play for Fiji again, having planned an extended break and pre-season prior to his elevation into the Kangaroos.
“When I found out that I wasn’t in the [Kangaroos] team I wasn’t shattered or anything, I’d just pretty much planned my holiday,” he said.
“I spoke with ‘Hook’ (Griffin) and we made a decision that I wasn’t going to play for Fiji and thought that I needed the rest and to have a really good pre-season.
“The year that I had, I’d been up for quite a while and it just felt in the back-end of the season that I probably needed a really good break.
“I didn’t think I needed to play for Fiji. I’ve played for them before and I’ve got the utmost respect for [coach] Mick Potter and the Fijian team and I thought I should give someone else an opportunity to play there and represent their family and their heritage.”
One of the form forwards during the back-end of the Telstra Premiership season, Campbell-Gillard will be vying for a spot in the Aussie front row alongside the likes of David Klemmer, Aaron Woods and fellow rookie Jordan McLean, with Klemmer adamant his former City Origin teammate deserves his place in the Australian team.
“He had a fantastic year. He was coming off the bench and having that big impact for the Penrith side and at the back-end of the year he was on fire,” Klemmer said.
“Obviously it’s his first time being in and around camp and everyone’s been welcoming.
“He’s going to have such a good time. There’s a good culture we’ve got here, Mal’s building something special and he’s become a part of this now.
“He’s going to really enjoy his time here and he deserves to be here.”