No Helmets Required experienced an extraordinary sporting and cultural event last week. Not only did we see that rarity of Australia losing a rugby league final as Papua New Guinea toppled them to win their first global title, but a rugby union team transformed into an exceptional rugby league team virtually overnight and our top clubs were reminded yet again to look a bit further than the M62 for talent.
Papua New Guinea won gold at the Rugby League Commonwealth Championship â a new Under-19 Nines tournament â beating a Sydney Roosters team representing Australia, with Wales winning bronze ahead of Canada, Scotland, England, Jamaica and South Africa, in that order. Over two days of competition at Broadwood Stadium in North Lanarkshire, a smart modern ground with a fancy artificial pitch, it was fascinating to see how quickly some teenage sportsmen can adapt to our game.
“Talent transfer” is a popular phrase in sports science these days. Go no further than David Epsteinâs impressive book The Sports Gene to learn more about how quickly an athlete can reach international level in a new sport. There were some heartening examples at Broadwood which raised the question: how long does it take to become a quality rugby league player?
The Commonwealth Championship suggested two possible answers:
A) One year. At the age of 11, James Iodice moved with his Italian family from Montreal to Australiaâs Gold Coast. At 14 he gave up ice hockey and took up rugby league. A year later he was in Queensland U15s, then the U16s and, despite spending more than two of the last three years injured, he is now playing for Gold Coast Titans U20s. If not for injury, he may well have already played for Australia Schoolboys or Italy. Instead, he played for Canada U19s last month in Scotland. He was good but by no means their most eye-catching player.
B): One month. In March this year, Matt Gallagher, Phil Berna, Robert Welch, Jason Hignell and Cole Keffer were playing rugby union in Vancouver. Keffer played Ultimate Frisbee for his country; Welch is a linebacker who is going to the University of Toronto on a football scholarship next month. In April they started having some coaching sessions in rugby league at BC Bulldogs with former Leeds junior Andy Blackburn. In May they were selected to represent their country. On June 26 they watched their first game of rugby league on TV â the first half of Hull KR v Huddersfield â in the hotel before retiring to bed with jet-lag. The following day they beat England in their first game at the Commonwealth Championship. Half-back Gallagher was effervescent; forward Hignell was Canadaâs player of the tournament; long-striding Berna scored twice against England; and full-back Keffer was a relentless bundle of energy in defence and attack, his bobbing long blonde curls cropping up all over the pitch. They and their Canada team-mates were as impressive as their travelling support.
These remarkable conversions were not alone. Walesâ James Mercurius-Taylor was playing rugby union for Ospreys last season. A stocky mixed-race flier of a winger, he was the tournamentâs top try-scorer with seven in five games just weeks after switching to league. Among Scotlandâs team that drew with Australia and beat England were two lads recently on the Scottish Rugby Unionâs apprentice scheme (try-scoring prop William Black and half-back Connor Turnball), while speedy half-back turned winger Finn Murphy was in the SRU age group system. None of them have been playing league for more than a year.
Rugby league cannot afford to ignore this. With such low playing numbers, talent transfer is key to the sport’s development. With the domestic game on its knees in Scotland and the British Columbia contingent feeling isolated even by the Canada RL, there is an opportunity for our clubs to bring these teenagers onto their own talent development pathways. Fortunately RFL Head of Talent and Development Dave Rotheram and NRL Elite Teams Manager Gareth Holmes were there at Broadwood to see it all first hand and will hopefully take the message back to their clubs.
Club call: Coventry Bears
After two years of ifs, buts and maybes, it was finally confirmed last week that Coventry will be the newest destination on the professional circuit when they join Championship One next season. The Bears have been around for a generation, competed in the summer RL Conference, the old National League 3 in its various guises and now in the lower reaches of the National Conference League, once BARLAâs flagship. The Butts Park Arena which they share with Coventry RUFC has league heritage â it was home to a short-lived Coventry team in the Northern Union days. If they can take the style and expertise of Oxford, the endurance of Hemel Stags and the enthusiasm of Gloucestershire All Golds, they could become the strongest of the latest four expansion clubs in the third tier. It is feasible that Championship One next season could consist of Barrow, Swinton and Rochdale along with most of the youngest clubs in rugby league. With the exception of my friends in Cumbria and Lancashire, this is surely what the RFL wanted all along.
Meanwhile, there is more international action next week in that league hotbed of Hawaii. Well, the sunbeds will be hot anyway. Hawaii Chiefs will take on the touring New South Wales Country in two exhibition games, the second a curtain-raiser to a first-ever test match at whopping Aloha Stadium on Saturday July 19 as the USA take on Samoa. They are hoping to beat the home USA attendance figure of 8,000 set against Australia in Philadelphia 10 years ago. It will still look lost amid Alohaâs 50,000 seats.
The Tomahawks expect to field at least six of their World Cup quarter-finalists, including exciting full-back Kristian Freed. Country will spread the gospel with clinics at University of Hawaii, where they will train and also play the Chiefs on 14 July.
The USA go to Jamaica in October with the Jamaicans expecting to welcome a Tomahawks team featuring players from both the buoyant USARL and the moribund AMNRL. There could be one governing body in the US by then with AMNRL clubs being encouraged to join forces with the USARL.
Goal-line drop out
With the leaders of the European and Pacific federations and the manager of Australiaâs elite teams all holed up in the Glasgow Airport Holiday Inn last week, there was much discussion of what the international scene may look like in 2015. Truth is, no one knows. There appears to be little hope of the much-rumoured World Nines as the Australian playersâ union remain adamant their stars need October and November off this year. Instead, NHR predicts more “second-tier” international games than usual, some featuring lower-profile NRL players. Among those events mentioned were New Zealand to host France and possibly England; a Junior Kangaroos tour of Europe including games against top Super League sides, England Knights, Wales and Scotland; and a European Under-18 Championship.
Fifth and last
Watching Matty Smith skipper Wigan to an easy victory over London Broncos at a rain-swept Hive on Saturday, booting goals from either touchline and generally bossing the game, made me wonder just how good Englandâs half-back options must be for him to have not won a single England cap. Then on ran Wigan coach Paul Deacon, who looks fitter and stronger (but no taller) than he was in his prime to carry instructions. Deacon can at least offer words of comfort to Smith over a protein shake. He won 18 caps but spent much of his career waiting for Sean Long to fall. For Long, read Rangi Chase. Having preferred almost anyone to Smith during his reign so far, England coach Steve McNamara is running out of legitimate alternatives.
How long does it take to become an excellent rugby league player?