Australian coach Mal Meninga has defended his players over criticism of not singing the national anthem, while legend Johnathan Thurston and the currently injured Latrell Mitchell have also weighed in.
A group of Kangaroos players seemingly refused to sing the national anthem prior to playing for Australia on Saturday evening in Townsville during the opening game of the newly created Pacific Championships.
It sparked outrage this week, with former Test captain Max Krilich declaring that not singing the anthem implies the players didn't want to play for the Kangaroos, while former Australian Rugby League chair Ken Arthurston said players needed to pay respect and that it was a must to sing the anthem.
Speaking on Triple M Radio though, Meninga said it was a personal preference over whether players should sing the anthem.
“I don't say anything (to the players), I think it's personal preference,” Meninga told Triple M.
“They've grown up with certain values, certainly with their families and those values have got to be respected.
“I think it's up to the individual. I personally sing the national anthem because I'm a proud Australian.
“There's no doubt that they're not less passionate Australians, they're not less passionate people that want to put the green and gold jersey on... they've just got a value set that's different and I think that needs to be recognised and acknowledged.”
Meninga had admitted to News Corp earlier though that he understood where the criticism was coming from.
“Not really,” he said.
“Everyone has an opinion. They are public figures and everyone has assumptions without even knowing the situation, and that can be very difficult.”
While the coach won't put any pressure on his players to sing the anthem when the Kangaroos play the Kiwis in Melbourne next week, or in a potential final across the Tasman the following week, the debate is likely to rage on.
Injured star Latrell Mitchell took to Instagram to back the players, suggesting it would be "difficult to sing without a voice" seemingly in reference to the recently failed referendum over an Indigenous voice to parliament.
Referencing Krilich's comment, Mitchell wrote:
"One in all in he says?
Well, make a song that includes indigenous people. Maybe change the date? Or I don't know even a voice to be heard?"
Thurston meanwhile, who is rated as one of the greatest players to ever step onto a rugby field and is a proud Indigenous man, said that when playing for the Indigenous All Stars the team didn't want the anthem played before the start of the games, and that it was a personal decision for Kangaroos players to not sing the anthem.
“I know that the Indigenous All Stars didn't sing the anthem and didn't want the anthem played in those games at the start of the year, and that was a decision that they made as a collective group,” he said from a Sport Australia Hall of Fame event on Monday.
“I'm not exactly sure which players didn't sing the anthem this time, but that's their belief and their personal decision.
“Just like the nation voted on the referendum, they are allowed to do their thing as well.
“While you might not like it, that's their decision.”