Rugby League: The Irish missionaries: Fans spread word on the Emerald Isle. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
IRELAND, already unique in having three codes of football competing on roughly equal terms, may have a fourth if a group of rugby league enthusiasts have their way.

There is only one amateur club, with another on the way, but the potential is there for rugby league to be something more than a nuisance to the existing trinity of football, rugby union and Gaelic football.

'Rugby league will never be the main winter sport in Ireland, but it can find a niche here,' said Chris Hardy, the coach of the Dublin Blues, who have a record of success against visiting English sides that is not entirely attributable to long ferry journeys and too much Guinness.

Hardy, an expatriate Welshman, has put together a side of union players bolstered by the occasional incomer with league experience. They adopted summer rugby while the game in England was still looking into it, in order to have access to the facilities at University College, Dublin, which are used until Easter by its union sides.

Four days before the arrival of one visiting team last month, Bolton, they were told they were no longer welcome. 'The stated reason was re-seeding,' said Hardy, who had to rearrange the match on a Gaelic football pitch, 'but you always wonder.'

Brian Corrigan, the club's chairman, is less suspicious. 'People over here neither know nor care about rugby politics,' he said. 'Rugby league is held in high regard in the parts of Ireland where it is seen on TV.'

Television and a work-mate from Hull introduced Corrigan to the game. 'He told me about this other kind of rugby, where the ball was in play a lot more and after that it was masochism that had me hooked.' In an interesting variation on the packed ferries that leave Dun Laoghaire before Manchester United matches, he crossed the Irish Sea at weekends to watch Wigan and St Helens.

Corrigan is old enough to remember earlier attempts to transplant the game into Ireland. British teams made regular trips for exhibition matches in the 1950s and 1960s, and in 1962 there was a four-team tournament at the John F Kennedy Stadium in Santry, outside Dublin.

The late Roy Evans, a loose-forward for Wigan and Great Britain, used to recall playing a match in the stadium while the celebrated Irish athlete, Ron Delaney, attempted a long-distance record on the track around it. The fight that broke out on the pitch not only stopped the game but the race as well.

A trickle of Irish rugby union players came into league, with Workington's signing of Ken Goodall in 1970 the most notable coup. He was a success until injury ended his career after three seasons.

The catalyst for the latest flurry of activity was the formation of an Irish team for the Student World Cup. Although Corrigan managed that side, his view was that his dream of rugby league in Ireland would be better served by a permanent club presence.

Hence the Dublin Blues, plus a little pocket of schoolboy league in County Wicklow and a new club on its way in Waterford. The level of interest will no doubt be stimulated if plans for a coaching clinic in Dublin involving the Test scrum-half Andy Gregory come about.

Hardy maintains that it is the Gaelic football connection that gives him the greatest hope. 'When you get a player from rugby union, you have to get him fit, teach him how to tackle and how to break a tackle,' he said. 'A Gaelic footballer already has all that. You only have to teach him the rules, which is a lot easier.'

Corrigan believes that rugby league in England is in danger of missing its chance just across the water. 'We hear a lot about development in South Africa and Russia, but the game is neglecting the opportunities in its own backyard.

'There is such a great affinity between Ireland and the league-playing towns of northern England. If we could get together all the players of Irish background - some of whom have already said that they would love to play - we could put a side in the World Cup in 1995. It would be as strong as France or Papua New Guinea, or even Wales, if they don't get any new converts.'

That remains a pipe-dream and Corrigan concedes that there would be precious few Irish birthplaces among such a team. 'But it would be as Irish as Jack Charlton's (football) side, and they don't seem to worry too much about those niceties when they run out at Lansdowne Road.'