Ireland on path to growing rugby league

Ireland on path to growing rugby league

When Ireland sealed their place in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup with a thumping 70-16 win over Russia in Bray on the Ireland east coast, 20 kilometres south of Dublin's city centre last October, 867 people were there to share the momentous occasion.

"To be fair, that's not a bad crowd in Ireland," says captain Liam Finn.

Finn may or may not surpass Bob Beswick – absent from this tour as his wife is expecting – as Ireland's most capped player during this World Cup tour, with the uncertainty due to the fact that he believes he has more than Beswick's 25 Irish caps already.

"Who's got more? Bob Beswick? I'm sure I've got more," says Finn, who on a number of websites is credited with 24 international caps.

It will be 12 months to the day since the Wolfhounds last played when they line up against Italy in their crucial pool match in Cairns on Sunday, finding last-minute funding to come to Australia the week before the tournament began to acclimatise and unwilling to risk injury to what is an already thin playing squad.

In order to help encourage greater participation in an Irish rugby league landscape that features just eight teams in the Republic of Ireland and a four-team competition in Northern Ireland, five domestic-based players have been included in Ireland's World Cup touring party.

Finn knows that a team which has been engaged in international competition for 20 years is in desperate need of exposure in the homeland to make any significant progress but is realistic enough to know why they couldn't risk injuries in a trial game.

"We'll probably be a little bit rusty at the start but I don't think we could afford to play a warm-up game. If we lose any players we're down to the bare bones," Finn told NRL.com.

"We've got 25 players but we've got five domestic, Irish-based players who play in their local competition. They're not even part-time players, they're amateur players.

"We have a policy to bring some of them to try and develop the game back there but at the same time you know what impact that has on your squad.

"In terms of having a competitive team you can't really risk losing anyone in a friendly.

"We had six [Irish-based] players in 2008 and then in 2013 we had two but they pushed for more this time to just get people interested in playing and opportunities for them.

"You kind of see both sides of the coin but it's all about the big picture really."

If the names are anything to go by there is no reason that Ireland shouldn't be in raptures about rugby league, with such mouth-watering clashes as the Treaty City Titans facing the Ballynahinch Rabbitohs and the North Down Gryphons' grudge match with the Portadown Pumas.

"It's really hard because union's absolutely massive in Ireland. There ain't much domestic rugby league played in Ireland so it's pretty tough," says Finn, who made his debut for Ireland 10 years ago and has played for Halifax, Castleford and Wakefield Trinity during his Super League career. 

"We don't get massive crowds in Ireland. The game's really in very early development stage. Nine hundred is quite a decent crowd for an Irish home game.

"A lot of us are playing on heritage and stuff like that and we have a few domestic lads involved but the difference in standard from over in Ireland to people playing in England is quite big really."

But Finn won't be swayed from his side's ability to turn some heads during the World Cup, starting with the opening match against an Italy side laden with NRL stars.

The Ireland skipper points out 22-year-old back-rower Oliver Roberts as a player he believes will capture plenty of attention during the tournament in a squad consisting primarily of Super League-based players who don't mind carrying the underdog tag.

"Certainly with our squad we're confident and we'll back ourselves," said Finn.

"We think we've got a good squad, we think we're competitive in our group. We know we've got to win pretty much every game to get out of it and going to Papua [New Guinea] and playing Italy in Cairns is a tough start but at the same time we're quietly confident we can have a good dig.

"We have obviously got an eye on the whole tournament but the Italy one is vital to start with because they've got a decent team and got some world-class players.

"We can't afford to drop that one. It's almost do-or-die from minute one.

"If we don't get that job done then we don't need to worry about anything else."