Rugby League World Cup: Terry Matterson plays name game in US adventure

Tomahawks can seal quarter-final place with last-minute coach

The coach behind the United States' stunning success in the Rugby League World Cup is still learning some of his players' names.

That was Terry Matterson's frank admission after a win over Wales put the Tomahawks on the brink of a historic quarter-finals place. The former Castleford coach had never heard of most of the squad before being asked to take over two weeks before the tournament.

The ex-Bradford and Hull coach Brian Smith was set to be in charge, but pulled out when his son arranged his wedding at short notice.

"David Niu, who more or less started the game off in America, phoned me and asked if I'd take over," Matterson said. "I asked my wife, pretty sure she'd say no, but she said 'Go for it'.

"It was good for me, because I've been an assistant at North Queensland Cowboys for two seasons and it gave me the opportunity to coach my own team again."

A chance, yes, but surely a poisoned chalice? Amazingly, for a sport that occupies such a tiny place on the American sporting scene, rugby league across the pond suffers from an acrimonious split, with two governing bodies. "There's been all sorts of strife," says Matterson. "But the good thing for me is I come into it with no baggage."

He inherited a Tomahawk squad dominated by American-qualified, but Australian-based players; a squad that looked destined for some ritual thrashings, especially with a schedule that required them to play their three group matches in eight days.

Instead, they have beaten France in a pre-tournament friendly and the Cook Islands and Wales since it began – and this with a team that had barely trained together, let alone played, two weeks ago.

"What they have done has defied belief," Matterson says. He also believes it vindicates the selection policy, with American residents in a minority in the squad. "There are a few," he adds. "But if we'd brought many more out here, it would have been embarrassing."

One whose American credentials are unarguable is the former Hull KR and current Penrith second-rower Clint Newton. He was born in South Carolina, admittedly because that was where his mother and father – the latter the famed golfer Jack Newton – were living at the time.

Newton has been keen to use his American qualification and does not believe anyone should be criticised for that. As far as he is concerned, this is a bona fide US squad.

"We've got 10 American nationals in the team, me included," he says. "We've probably got more home-grown and home-born players than a lot of the other nations taking part."

Matterson says the presence of experienced top-flight players like Newton and Joseph Paulo, who has been superb at stand-off in the tournament, lifts the standards of the novices around them.

Paulo is one of several players who qualify through their connections with American Samoa. "They have led and the other guys have followed," the coach says. "They are making me proud, making their families proud and, hopefully, making their country proud," he says. "We even got a line in the New York Times. They might have to give us a paragraph now. It's a bit scary expectations might go up."

Those expectations now include the possibility of beating Scotland in Salford on Thursday night, although they could win their group without doing so. Then the probability is that they will face Australia in the quarter-finals – and that is surely where their progress will end.

But what an adventure it has been, as unexpected, in its way, as the 1953 American All Stars' tour of Australia. The year after that, they were invited to play in the inaugural World Cup, but by then no longer had a team capable of competing so well. It has taken them 60 years to get back here – and their impact has surprised everyone, even themselves.

* Leeds have given England international Zak Hardaker a written warning and fined him £2,500 for a breach of discipline after he was dropped from England's World Cup squad this week.