Tahu and Mason now Kangaroos

Kiwis assistant coach Gerard Stokes was neither surprised nor distraught that giant second-rower Willie Mason and slick wing Timana Tahu have chosen to pursue their international rugby league careers with Australia. Mason and Tahu will make their test debuts for the Kangaroos against Great Britain at Sydney on Friday night.

The 1.95m, 115kg, 22-year-old Mason was born in New Zealand, has lived in Australia since he was six years old, and represented Tonga at the 2000 World Cup.

Tahu, 21, 1.88m and 92kg, is Australian-born with an Aborigine father and Maori mother. He played for New South Wales in the recent drawn State of Origin series.

"We pretty much knew they were aiming for the Australian side," said Stokes from Wellington yesterday.

Although they were technically available for either country until last Sunday's Kangaroos announcement, both Mason and Tahu had previously declined to play for the Junior Kiwis.

"It would have been nice to have them, but they were just two of many players we have been looking at," said Stokes. "I guess the decision comes down to how much time you have spent in Australia."

Mason, who was also courted by the Australian Rugby Union, has revealed he almost pledged his allegiance to the Kiwis because of his friendship with Bulldogs club-mates Willie Talau and Nigel Vagana. But he recalled his late father, Ian, had always dreamed of him playing for Australia and that persuaded him to decline an approach from Sydney-based Kiwis coach Gary Freeman.

"With Timana Tahu it was just a matter of when he got picked for Australia rather than if. His decision was made a long time ago, and it was going to be very hard to turn him around," said Stokes.

For the first time since 1996 there was no mid-season trans-Tasman test match to force pre-selection declarations of loyalty from Mason and Tahu.

New Zealand's test programme begins at home against Papua New Guinea (October 5) and Australia (October 12), before the Kiwis tour Wales, England, and France.

"There is a lot of healthy competition at the moment. We've got something like 56 players we are looking at ..." said Stokes.