As some of you will know by now, Code13rugbyleague, a website I worked for covering the great game of rugby league, has closed at the end of the 2012 season.
I'm very proud of what the website achieved, and so I'll be reproducing here some of the interviews I conducted with some of rugby league's personalities.
First, and it's somewhat topical considering that his team won the Championship Grand Final this year, is Sheffield Eagles coach Mark Aston.
I spoke to Mark in the summer of 2011 following his appointment as coach of the Ireland rugby league team, a post he continues to fill alongside his duties at the Eagles.
Sheffield Eagles coach Mark Aston was appointed as the new coach of the Ireland rugby League team last week. Code13‘s Zack Wilson caught up with the effervescent Eagles chief this week at Bramall Lane for a chat about Ireland as well RL in Sheffield, Yorkshire’s only rugby league ‘expansion’ city.
In today’s Part One, Mark talks about the challenges of his new role with the Irish. Read Part Two on Friday for his thoughts on the Eagles’ campaign so far…
Congratulations on the appointment Mark. What’s first on the agenda for the job?
I’m on my travels this weekend to Dublin to look around the place. They’ve got a final going on, the Inter-Province final, so I’m going to have a look at the standard of that and see what’s around there.
On Sunday morning I’m actually going to do a bit of a session with the Ireland ‘A’ squad – the Wolfhounds – and have a look at some of those guys.That’s the squad drawn from the domestic league and things like that. So I want to have a look at what it is and where it is and get my own ideas of the standard and, I guess, the task in hand.
What is the appeal of the job? What drew you to the post?
It’s the challenge. Looking at it, it’s like where I was ten years ago with Sheffield Eagles. That’s how I look at it. We had nothing and at least Ireland have got a squad of quality players in there. They dipped last year and they weren’t happy with the standards and performances, but they weren’t happy on a number of other things as well. I aim to resolve those and build a professional environment there and challenge them to be the best they can be.
What do you see as your main tasks?
Structures are a big thing that need looking at, as does coaching over there. I’m not going to be there every week coaching week in and week out, so we need to make sure that we get the structures in place. We need to look at the identification of the Irish squad. I’ve just spoken with Scott Grix, to see about getting a coffee with him and finding out some of the issues they’ve had over the last couple of years. And also making sure that he’s on board, because he was the skipper last year.
It’s not a quick fix, it’s something to build to.
Talking about that, there’s been some high-profile defections from the Ireland squad recently, such as Ben Harrison and Chris Bridge. Have you got a plan for counteracting this kind of draining of talent?
We’ve got to find the next generation. That’s the challenge. What I’m amazed about with Ireland is that they’ve go the senior squad, but underneath the senior squad they’ve got an amateur squad, and I think there’s something missing there like an academy to put in place.
Have any new players expressed an interest in playing for Ireland after your appointment?
I’ve got one here at Sheffield – Vinny Finegan. He’s Irish and he’s put his hand up and said he wants to be part of it. One of the things I’ve always spoken about is getting the youth. Are those players who put up their hands and were part of the 2008 World Cup going to be part of the 2013 World Cup? If they are, then we’ve got four games this year and they’ll have to be putting their hands up for those as well.
You’ll be taking on England, Australia and Fiji at the next World Cup. That must be an exciting for challenge for you?
Fantastic! How good is that for three games? If you want to be on the big stage, then they’re three nations you want to be playing. I’m really looking forward to it, and the guys should be too, but I want them to be preparing now and I want them to feel that when they come into the environment it’s a professional, respectful and disciplined environment.
If we get that right, then look at the players Ireland have got. The Grix brothers, you’ve got people like Pat Richards. There’s others around – Tyrone McCarthy and Tim Bergin. I want the kids who are going to be around for the next few years.
What Ireland is is a passionate nation. That’s what we want in the camp, that passion and pride. Has the sport been going for a few years? Yes, but is it established to the extent it should be? No, and we certainly aim to do that in the next few years. If I can be part of that then I’ll be extremely proud. I just see so many similarities between where Ireland are at now and where I was at Sheffield ten years ago.
I’m sure there are some quality players who are underneath the radar as well. They probably fill the form in and just put England down without thinking whether they’ve got any Irish ancestry. There’s only so many people can play for England, and at the end of the day we want to give opportunity to players.One of my first jobs is to speak to all the heads of youth and find out who actually who is available and capable of playing for Ireland.
Are there are any of Irish RL’s past greats who will be helping out at all? I’m thinking particularly of Brian Carney or Barrie McDermott, though there are many others.
It’s a clean deck at the moment. There’s me in post, and I’ve got to have a look at who I want to be involved. I know who I want to fetch as my assistant -there’s no dount about that. Whether he can commit to that is something that we have to try and resolve over the next week or so. If he can’t, then it’s Plan B I suppose.
What do I see for Brian and Barrie Mac and Terry O’Connor? I had a meeting with Barrie last week about it, and he’s still very supportive of the Ireland team. He wants a new environment. He wants a professional and disciplined environment. That’s what I want. So I can see all three of them having some sort of ambassadorial role, or just being about the place. Obviously they won’t be involved in a coaching role, but they’ve got massive commitments already.
What is your strategy for getting more first generation Irish born and raised players into your group?
Of course we have to do that. I’ve been looking at the list of players they’ve had over the last few years, and who do I want to keep and who interests me and who do I think is going to be around until the 2013 World Cup. We’ve already got people like Tim Bergin (born in County Laoise) in the environment, so I’m looking to see who else is around.
What really does interest me is the academy over there, where a couple of weeks ago some of the Super League clubs went over and the players that had come through the Provinces there, in the academies, they got them together. And I believe that St Helens took a couple on trial, Hull FC took one and I believe Wigan have taken another one. Those people interest me. What does that potentially give my squad? Pride and passion. Maybe they couldn’t quite make it in rugby union, but could they in rugby league? I guarantee you that there will be some skilful and very decent rugby league players there.
Are you eyeing up any rugby union converts at all?
There’s a lot of people in the rugby union system over there. They come through the school environment and go into the academies. But the Ireland RU only keep the cream of the cream. So what happens to the rest? I think those players are highly skilled and they’ll have good habits, good systems and that. Can we transfer their skills into rugby league? I’m sure we can. It’s got to be a lot easier changing from rugby union to league than vice versa. So they do interest me.
I want to build a programme of work over there where we can get an elite training programme, where some of those kids might come over to England for work placements. They might go to Sheffield Eagles, they might go to Wigan, they might go and have a week or a month at a professional club and see what it’s about and smell the Super League environment and see what it’s like to train with the first team and see the intensity. That’s one of the challenges of the job: to see if we can turn some of these rugby union people into rugby league players, and even international players. If we can get one or two of them, then you get three or four, then you can start talking about profile and raising the awareness of Rugby League Ireland.
If we can get that then people will buy into the concept of what we’re trying to do. We need to drive the pride and the passion into rugby league in Ireland and say: “We want Irish people playing rugby league for Ireland.”
Look at what Leinster has done in rugby union. They used to be run by one man and a dog and they used to just get a couple of hundred people watching. Now they’re up to tens of thousands in the crowd week in and week out. People get behind a winning team. That’s what we’ve got to deliver.
That’s why I want to get over there and have a look. Show me what Ireland has got and what I can work with. I want to make Ireland proud of their international rugby league team. The talent is out there, we’ve got to convince them that rugby league is a great game.
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