By ROBERT STEVENSON
Think of Irish Rugby League and one name comes to mind… Brian Carney.
But to grow a sport in a new land needs more than the fleeting fame of a shooting star – no matter the brilliant trailing flame that the ex-Wigan and GB star left.
For sure, Carney’s exploits raised the awareness of Rugby League in the Emerald Isle, but those green fields across the Irish Sea were still mere outshoots when Brian hung up his boots in 2009.
Rugby League Ireland Chairman, Jim Reynolds, believes that the current state of the greatest game in his home country is a bit like these offshoots, revealing only the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
The analogy is one of Jim’s favourite phrases used frequently during a sweeping review of the past, present and future of Rugby League in Ireland.
So, where did it all begin? Jim was brought up in the fishing village of Greencastle, County Donegal, a Gaeltacht (Gaelic speaking) area far from Rugby League’s traditional M62 heartland.
His late father James introduced him to Challenge Cup matches on Saturday Grandstand. He was attracted by “the speed and competitiveness of the matches with characters like Martin Offiah coming out of the blue like a rocket on the wing”.
At university Jim studied electrical engineering but only worked hands-on for two years before taking management roles heralding a global career spanning Bulgaria, Holland, and South East Asia. The latter included Australia and working in the Outback.
Jim’s first live taste of Rugby League was “Bush footy, where the rules are a little more relaxed”. Frequent management visits to Sydney took in many NRL matches followed by State of Origin, which he views as “cutting edge – the pinnacle of Rugby League”.
With Reynolds a common surname amongst the Irish diaspora, it comes as no surprise that Jim became a Souths’ stalwart and met his namesake Adam many times before his move to the Broncos. He applauds the recent Roosters vs. Rabbitohs elimination match…”it had everything in it. Real edge of your seat stuff and ‘Roy of the Rovers’ against the odds… bravery at its best”.
We first met in Sofia 2007 where Jim was involved in a project to privatise the Bulgarian Telecoms Company. Both of us being Irish (Jim is also a native Irish speaker), we naturally gravitated to the local Irish pub – Murphy’s – which fielded the first Rugby League team in Bulgaria; Murphy’s Misfits.
Pleasingly there are now four clubs playing and Bulgaria entered the Balkans Cup in 2017.
Funnily, despite our friendship neither of us realised that the other was a Rugby League fan(atic), so it came as a surprise to learn that Jim had been appointed as Chairman for Rugby League Ireland in 2020. How did that come about?
“I returned to Ireland in 2015 semi-retired and got involved, taking my eldest son James to play junior games across the country. This brought me into contact with many parents and, knowing my business background, one of them who had contact with Rugby League Ireland asked if I could contribute. This led to my nomination as Chairman and I was elected in 2020”.
Taking on the Chairman’s role, Jim soon got to grips with the main challenges – a lack of structure, strategy, and systems.
“Many onlookers saw RLI from the sporting side only – the 10% tip of the iceberg; but as a National Governing Body (NGB) the 90% that is below the water wasn’t even there.
“I mean we had a disciplinary procedure but it wasn’t fit for purpose, so the most important task was to sort out the spaghetti behind the business in line with the new Constitution which Sport Ireland would recognise.”
By actively engaging with key stakeholders such as Sports Council Ireland, RLI has now built solid foundations with some notable achievements. Jim is particularly proud of RLI’s inclusivity.
“We have a 45% female gender representation on our Board and the women’s game is growing with an All-Ireland League (AIL) and our Women’s team won their opening game this June in the Under-19s European competition against their Italian hosts 30-6.”
Special congratulations must go to Ali Coleman, scoring a 15-minute first-half hat-trick. With players like that supported by a Head Coach of the calibre of John Whalley – Wigan Warriors’ Women’s assistant coach – the future looks bright for Women’s Rugby League in Ireland.
Particularly pleasing is the fact that most of the squad is Irish born playing for local clubs such as Dublin City Exiles, the men’s and women’s AIL Premiership champions.
This solid base saw Ireland host the Student’s Tri-Nations in June. There is also a progression pathway as the Women’s team are participating in Group B of the European Championship with their first match against Wales on Saturday 10th October.
World Cup hopes
Mentioning youth gives Jim an opportunity to re-introduce his eldest son James, now a young man, who came through the youth ranks at their AIL local team Galway Tribesmen, graduating to the first thirteen and subsequently Ireland Students and the Under-20s, captaining the latter. And now he has been selected for Ireland ‘A’.
Although a proud father, when asked if James could make it as a professional, Jim shows paternal concern.
“James is studying 9-5 at University of Galway and then goes rugby training immediately. He is non-stop. I’ve even seen him go sea swimming at 2am and had to have a word as the Atlantic Ocean is treacherous even in the summer”.
Turning his attention to the Rugby League World Cup, Jim is pleased and optimistic. For the first time Ireland will have two teams involved – men’s and wheelchair – with the latter opening the tournament with their match against Spain (Thursday 3rd November) in a tough group alongside Australia and England.
Optimistic for the men’s team prospects, he sees quarter-final qualification as a real prospect, while recognising the need to get off to a winning start in Ireland’s first Group C match against Jamaica.
“I am really looking forward to being there throughout the tournament, particularly as we are based in Leeds, which has a large Irish population and Headingley is a vibrant stadium. Also the appointment this April of Ged Corcoran as our Head Coach has been a real boost to our prospects and we work closely together. We were delighted to be able to secure a sponsor – Kia Premier – to provide Ged with a car.”
Ireland are ranked twelfth in the world by International Rugby League but are up against top ranked New Zealand as well as 13th ranked Lebanon and Jamaica, who are ranked 21st.
But the Wolfhounds will fear no one. With forwards like Wigan’s Liam Byrne and Hull KR’s Frankie Halton, Ireland won’t lack for go-forward, while waiting in the wings is Halton’s team-mate Ethan Ryan, who has already surpassed a century of tries in his short career, touching down ten times in 19 appearances for the Robins in 2022.
Jim highly rates current Ireland squad players Luke Keary (Sydney Roosters) and captain George King (Hull KR).
“One thing these players have in common, apart from great skill, is their consistent hard and honest work ethic with great humility, the qualities I admire in people in general.”
Seeking home-grown players
In terms of better providing for the development of young players in Ireland, Jim feels that the congruent league and union seasons benefits Rugby League going forward. He reckons that for too long local Rugby League teams were largely dependent on union players volunteering to fill in their off season by having a go at the 13-man code.
But now there is no hiding place and the AIL teams have to grow their own player base, although with the GAA (Gaelic Athletics Association) shortening their season from 35 to 26 weeks – ending in July – there is an opportunity to collaborate as the GAA is particularly strong in the counties where RLI has few or no Rugby League clubs. It was in the GAA that Brian Carney honed his skills. Brian is being approached to join a stellar list of RLI Ambassadors, including Terry O’Connor, Barry McDermott, Luke Ricketson and Kevin Campion, who are all from the RLWC 2000 Ireland ‘Dream Team’.
This inclusive approach goes hand-in-hand with development in RLI’s Strategic Five-Year Plan and a key initiative linking both is Sport Ireland’s ‘Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools’.
Launched in 2017 and with a 32m euro budget, RLI are playing their part this year with a project to introduce the greatest game to a school in Crumlin, a deprived area in Dublin’s south side, which takes us back to the reality of life – money! And the contrast between the wealthy and the rest of us.
Seeking help for Ireland
Jim notes that the NRL annually generates A$400,000 from donations alone, which contrasts with RLI’s total budget for 2021/22 of 300,000 euros.
And with only 100,000 euros coming from Sport Council Ireland, RLI’s Board are tasked with finding the other two-thirds. No wonder that no one gets expenses, let alone a salary, at RLI.
“Living in Galway on the west coast, I drive 30,000 miles per annum. We all work purely voluntarily but it is imperative that we increase our revenue stream to become sustainable.
“Times are hard. At the moment we badly need an administrator and a media coordinator.”
Jim sees a sustainable long-term solution and is particularly impressed by what he calls “the continental model where the local municipality own and run inclusive sports centres where you can go and play football, rugby, tennis and even table tennis – something for everyone.”
Rugby League supporters who appreciate the many sacrifices that those volunteering their time with RLI make on a daily basis to develop the greatest game in the Emerald Isle can support RLI simply by pressing the green ‘Donate’ button on www.rli.ie. You can give as little as one euro and all contributions will be much appreciated.
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