Super League Magic Weekend: Stanley Gene hopes Geordies will embrace the Magic of a less familiar game at St James' Park

On the weekend when St James’ Park will host six Super League fixtures, Dave Hadfield meets the Newcastle coach from Papua New Guinea with a mission to help the code take root in a region where it has long held the potential to flourish

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The Independent Online

Ask Stanley Gene whether he considers himself an adopted Geordie and he manages what, for a Papua New Guinean, is a fair stab at “Why aye, man!”

As the coach of the Newcastle Thunder, Gene is in the front line of what must sometimes seem a lonely battle for recognition in a football-mad city.

This week the reinforcements arrive. Super League’s Magic Weekend is bringing a full round of fixtures to St James’ Park on Saturday and Sunday, and Gene says that will help his efforts enormously.

“People here are keen on their soccer and rugby union, but this can only help our profile,” he says. So can the presence, all year round, of a figure as charismatic as himself.

It is nearly 20 years since Gene –pronounced to rhyme with “many” – first came to the notice of the world outside the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. His all-action performances in the 1985 World Cup led to him being signed by Hull KR, beginning an affinity with the North-east corner of England.

At first, it seemed that the cultural differences might be too wide to overcome. He tells a story about his first fishing trip in this country, armed with an expensive rod provided by a club sponsor. He had no idea what to do, so he threw the rod into the water, as if he was spear-fishing in his home country.

Fortunately, things went a lot better on the pitch and Gene became a firm fans’ favourite at Rovers.

He almost became a Geordie in 2000 when he signed for what was then the Gateshead Thunder, but they ran out of money and merged with Hull FC to leave him much closer to his adopted home.

Further stints followed at Bradford, Huddersfield and back at his beloved Hull KR, until he retired in his late thirties.

As a coach, he combined Gateshead with the youth side at Rovers until he was shunted out of that and into his full-time role in the North-east.

“Nobody thought we could make the top four last season, but we did it,” he says. This season is looking even more promising, with the club fourth in Championship 1, two points behind the leaders.

The Thunder, recently renamed as Newcastle, are now part of the Falcons organisation and Gene believes that is a positive development. “No disrespect to Gateshead, but if you go anywhere in the world, it’s Newcastle that everyone has heard of,” Gene says.

The Thunder started the whole weekend last night with a match against the York City Knights at Kingston Park. They wore special shirts bearing the names of famous footballing sons of the Toon, from Jackie Milburn to Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne.

Saturday’s first game will also have its calculated sartorial statement, with Widnes wearing familiar-looking black-and-white stripes against Salford.

There will be one corner of St James’ Park, however, where the colour scheme will be orange and black. Those are the colours of the Cramlington Rockets, a club eight miles to the north of Newcastle who show how an unfamiliar game can take root.

Founded at nearby Killingworth in 2000, they now run teams from under-eights to adults and have sold no fewer than 500 tickets for the Magic Weekend.

“We took 50 down to the Weekend in Manchester last year and everyone enjoyed it,” says the Cramlington chairman, Jeff Ball. “So to have it here on our doorstep can only increase the enthusiasm for the game up here.”

Cramlington happens to be where Shearer played much of his junior football. How do you carve your own niche in a sporting heritage like that? “With a lot of commitment and hard work,” says Ball.

The desire for a top-flight rugby league presence in the North-east dates back many years. Two of the first six Test matches against Australia in this country were played at St James’ Park in 1909 and 1911.

A crowd of more than 40,000 – a Magic Weekend record – is expected, to revive that tradition.

It would be excusable if Gene’s attention focused on the second match on the bill – the invariably highly charged Humberside derby between Hull FC and Hull KR.

“Everyone knows I’ve got a soft spot for Rovers, but I’m going to sit on the fence,” he says unconvincingly.

Third up should be the highlight of the whole weekend, with the Super League leaders Leeds playing a Wigan side still smarting from a heavy defeat at the Catalan Dragons a week ago.

“Football and rugby union are big in Newcastle,” Gene says. “Rugby league can be big as well. I remember when I went to Hull KR they were in the second division and they changed all that.”

One of the proudest achievements of Gene’s playing career is that, from his earnings, he paid for his home village of Segu, near Goroka, to be connected to the electricity network.

This weekend he would like to witness a similarly enlightening experience for the tribe they call the Geordies.