Rugby League: First Night - The craic at a new code

Rugby league feels it is going places, even if Dubliners were slow to catch on. By Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online
IF DUBLIN is ever granted a Super League franchise and needs a coach, Shaun Edwards would like to be considered. Although Ireland's first full rugby league international on home soil ended in a brave, late 24-22 defeat by France - and isn't there something traditionally Irish about that? - then, in the most decorated player in the game, they had one of the heroes of a memorable night.

Anyone wondering whether it was really worthwhile trying to import yet another code of football into a country where three are already clamouring for attention should have witnessed the green fuse the occasion lit in Edwards. "I felt more and more Irish as the game went on," he said, fist clamped around a pint of Guinness afterwards.

One benefit of Jack Charlton's modus operandi in one of those other codes is that nobody looks too critically any more at degrees of sporting Irishness. Edwards qualifies via his maternal grandmother, Kitty Collins, who came from "somewhere out on the West Coast, a lot of years ago". As far as he knows, that does not make him any kin to Ireland's former world champion, Steve Collins, but rugby league has brought the two Celtic Warriors together and Collins was there at Tolka Park on Wednesday night.

"I'm a Shaun Edwards fan. I watch him playing for the London Broncos, so I had to be here tonight," said Collins, who believes that the code can find its niche in Ireland, even if it has a fight ahead. "The biggest problem it will have here is the rugby union. It's such a clique and they're terrified of this, because it's so much a better game.

"I never wanted to play it myself. Can you imagine running into someone like Shaun on the field?" Brian Carney shares those sentiments about the game's appeal. He discovered it for the first time in May, but on Wednesday he was a home-grown hero to rival Edwards. If Edwards has played around 1,000 games in his life, Carney, from Co Wicklow - "Valley Mount. Make sure you get that in or they'll kill me" - has experienced a mere handful.

On Wednesday night, however, he was a relevation on the Irish left wing, showing equal measures of pace and bravery that suggested that, after dalliances with Gaelic football and rugby union, he has found the set of rules that suit him.

"I was playing a bit of rugby union at Lansdowne and Brian Corrigan, who is involved down there and set up the Irish Rugby League, asked me to have a go in a student tournament," he said, after having his eyebrow stitched back together in a makeshift surgery in Shelbourne Football Club's offices. "I love the game. For a winger, there's no comparison with rugby union; more ball, harder hitting, faster . . .

"It's the biggest thrill of my life. These guys like Martin Edwards - er, Shaun Edwards - and Martin Crompton that you see on TV and I finish up playing alongside them. I've brought a load of people tonight from where I live. They've never seen a game of rugby league in their lives, but I know for a fact that they'll have loved it."

Carney, a 22-year-old business graduate, plays for the Dublin Blues, one of four clubs playing in the South Conference of the Ireland Rugby League, based around Dublin; there is an equivalent structure centred around Belfast in the North. A full-time development officer, Nigel Johnston, has also set up a thriving school network, reflected in the mini-league games before the main match and at half-time. But Carney has the ability to leave all this behind. He has already trained with the Bradford Bulls. "I never got to play a game for Bradford, but it was great to see how a Super League club works and train with players like Tevita Vaikona," he said.

Now, a combination of the Irish captain and coach, Crompton and Steve O'Neill, is likely to see him offered a chance at Salford. "He's a terrific prospect," Crompton said. "And you know the best thing about him? He's tough, very tough - and that's the starting point. I get the impression that there is a lot of that sort of toughness around here and that's why there is such good material for rugby league."

Your man from the Dublin Blues overhears. "We've got more where he came from," he promises. It is the encouragement of those grass roots that the Rugby Football League's chief executive, Neil Tunnicliffe, sees as the object of the exercise. By contrast with the regime that went before him, Tunnicliffe steadfastly declined to beat up Wednesday night into something it was not or to make claims that it could not sustain.

There was, for instance, the novel policy of announcing the genuine crowd of 1,511 - kept down on a chill Dublin night by Manchester United on television - rather than inflating it into something more impressive. "What would be the point? Rugby league has done too much of that - parachuting into places and then pulling out because it's not an instant commercial success. We're in this for the long haul and it's all about supporting the work that Nigel Johnston has done. There were 1,500 here tonight and a lot of those were kids who are involved in rugby league. For them, it was a great occasion."

The gradualist philosophy has already achieved one breakthrough. One designated development area in the North-east now has an infrastructure of amateur and junior rugby league that has made the entry of Gateshead Thunder into Super League next year feasible.

Two other target areas, Dublin and Glasgow, have international fixtures as part of the triangular tournament with France. The game is steadily putting down roots, but the world is inevitably less interested in that than in headlines promising "Super League club for Dublin". That is an ambition, says Tunnicliffe, "but there is no firm proposal, no consortium in place and no finance."

You might conclude from a crowd of 1,511 that there is not all that much interest either, but the administration is prepared to give it time, for the drip-drip of activity and publicity to hollow out a space for a new game in an already crowded market place. At this early stage, there is a low-level hum of recognition, with mentions in the major newspapers and on radio. They see Sky Sports and BBC1 in Ireland and, although Corrigan was exceptional in getting the bug so badly that he travelled over to Wigan every weekend the way the masses do to Old Trafford, you can say "rugby league" in a pub in Dublin and attract vague expressions of approval. "I thought the crowd was fantastic," Barrie McDermott, the Leeds prop, said. "There weren't that many of them, but the noise was unbelievable. There was a lot of enthusiasm there."

McDermott and his fellow Super League professionals rather give the lie to the notion that the only thing they are concerned about is the club that pays their wages. The Anglo-Irish contingent coped happily with having to travel by ferry, because Stena Line came on board as sponsors, paying for their own refreshments, because Guinness didn't, and even with O'Neill's motivational Dubliners' tapes on the team bus.

But, if there was an element of end-of-season jaunt about it, Edwards and company played it on the pitch like a Test match against Australia. It was well into the fourth round of the black stuff before they stopped reproaching themselves for losing. It was then that the compensations kicked in. "I'm not going home until Sunday," said Edwards, although for him and his team-mates, Dublin was feeling more and more like home itself.