By STEVE MASCORD
HUDDERSFIELD is the birthplace of rugby league; Gormanston, County Meath, is not.
But it’s here I sit down in the canteen of an old boarding school (a boarded up boarding school?) with Ronan Michael. I could also do a pun about the “Full Irish” but it was way past breakfast time – 19-year-old Ronan is Irishman who’s just signed for the Giants.
Casual rugby league fans might think of Irish rugby league as a bunch of Englishmen, Kiwis and Aussies who’ve once had a Guinness but the truth is far from this as the Wolfhounds prepare for Sunday’s winner-take-all clash with Wales where a World Cup berth is at stake.
Stuart Littler’s squad is in camp here, half an hour outside Dublin, and share the echoey halls with a group of Russian Students. There’s a pitch across the road and even the national rugby union squad has spent time here.
But when there’s no tenants, the place is closed. Right now Ireland’s mix of full timers, part-timers and amateurs are getting stick into their lunch before driving off to a video session upstairs.
“I only started playing in February 2017 – less than two years ago,” says Ronan, an enthusiastic and well spoken young chap.
“I had to take a break from playing rugby union….”
OK, let’s pause to explain why. Believe it or not, when teenagers change clubs in Irish rugby union there is an enforced stand-down period. In a country where GAA players strictly represent where they live, this is perhaps understandable but still… Michael was transferring from Balbriggan to Clontarf.
“I was playing gaelic football and just started playing rugby league. It just sort of snowballed from there. I was playing with Ireland under 17s and a bit with the Longhorns up in Ashbourne, County Meath.
“I wanted to keep playing rugby because I love it. Rugby League Ireland welcomed me with open arms and took me in and I started learning a brand new sport and, oh it was amazing, absolutely brilliant.”
His first training session, it’s fair to say, was an experience. “I’d seen the NRL on TV but you wouldn’t hear of rugby league in Ireland, really.”
You can imagine that said in an Irish accent, right?
“My first three sessions I just spent getting my foot and learning how to play the ball. It was a bit different, you know? No rucks and having the run a bit more upright. No line-outs. You don’t get a break.
“When you’re going into a rugby league game, it’s like an arm wrestle. Every little thing adds up. When you’re playing rugby union and you’re under pressure, you can just kick for touch, take the line-out.
“When you’re going set for set with a team, it’s that arm wrestle. It’s so much down to how you prepare for the game, how well you know each other how well you know your team-mates and whether you’re going in with the right attitude.
“It’s a different connection with the lads. In rugby league, we’re out on the pitch and we’re going for each other. When we’re playing for Ireland, we’re putting on the jersey and we’re having a dig out there. We’re brothers in that jersey and we’re representing the same country.
“It’s been a different feeling.”
Enter Kieron Brown, the uncle of Irish junior international and Warrington signing Josh Thewlis.
“I met Josh and Kieron before the Wales game … I play well enough against Wales to get an opportunity and Kieron organised for me and three other lads to go over the Huddersfield in February.
“After that trip in February, I got asked to go back after my exams at the end of June – I got asked to go back on a trial from June 2018 all the way through to just a couple of weeks ago when I signed.”
Ronan, as you’d expect, still doesn’t know if he can make a career from rugby league.
“At the start, we were kind of skeptical. We thought ‘oh, how’s this going to work out?’.
“Then things started going well. It just started building. The games against Wales were brilliant and I was like ‘I really do like this sport. I might be more suited to this sport than rugby union’.
“Then the season ended and it was like ‘OK, see you next season’ … and I was offered the chance to go over to Huddersfield for a week. I was over the moon. I thought ‘this is a brilliant opportunity’.”
Leeds Bradford is only an hour away but, says Michael, “they didn’t really understand me. I was the odd one out, this Irish bloke. I had trouble at the start picking up Yorkshire accents …
“Every single day I was just learning as I went along. The older, more experienced lads were showing me how to do things. My coaches, Andy Kelly and Luke Robinson, took me and gave me tips and pointers.
“It’s been a journey because I didn’t play as a kid, I had to learn a lot quicker. I’m picking up basic skills as I’m picking up more advanced skills. They’ve been parallel each other – I’ve been learning about how to play the game while learning about it as a sport.
“Brian Carney had the Irish background, the Gaelic Football, and he went very far playing rugby league and I’d love to be the next guy to take that step and ideally, hopefully, get into the Super League and play first team in the Super League.”
Ronan’s not just a big bloke with nice footwork. He shapes as one of the Irish game’s biggest proponents in the years ahead.
“I believe we have so many good, talented athletes and in particular rugby union players in Ireland who could easily transition into rugby league.
“If you think about it, there’s only four professional rugby union clubs in Ireland – the four provinces Leinster, Ulster, Munster, Connaught and Munster.
“So, as you can imagine, there’s so much talent coming through the ranks in rugby union. Even if a couple of those lads who didn’t make it the whole way dropped into rugby league and became a part of it as well as the lads who have Irish heritage over in England…
“If we got some underaged development in Ireland we could get more like me playing at a higher standard, I’m sure hopefully Rugby League Ireland will develop.
“And we will be on the news soon and we will be showing this is a sport to be played in Ireland and you can – just like in England – pay rugby union and rugby league and have good teams in both codes.”