Richard Egan is keeping the rugby league flame alive

Richard Egan moved to Ireland for love, but he didn’t leave his other passion behind.

Richard Egan is keeping the rugby league flame alive

A rugby league diehard, the Leeds native met an Irish girl and made the move to Dublin in 1997.

That relationship — Linda is now his wife — is still going strong.

So is his devotion to the 13-man code in a country where it has become accustomed to the cold shoulder.

People like Egan have had to keep the flame flickering through some dark times.

He started out here playing for the now-defunct Dublin Blues who used to play visiting British sides on tour. “Interesting times,” he says. Listen to him talk for 10 minutes and it’s hard to imagine there has been a dull moment.

There was a time there when rugby league seemed to establish a firm foothold in the unyielding soil. Funded to the tune of €90,000 per year by the Rugby Football League (RFL) in England, they had a CEO and a couple of coaching officers.

The domestic league was showing signs of growth and the success of a national team qualifying from the pool stages of the 2000 and 2008 World Cups provided a few rare rays of sunshine strong enough for the country to take note.

That was before the global financial crisis.

The RFL’s support was pulled from under their feet in 2013 and now stands at just €25,000. It was the type of blow an already weak body could ill-afford given the then Sports Council was refusing to give them official recognition.

That meant no government funding and no access to schools and the lifeblood that would come with new players. Everything stagnated. The league shrunk. The few employees of Rugby League Ireland were laid off. Back to square one.

“We’re 100% volunteers now,” says Egan.

He himself is a director. The lion’s share of coaching is done by guys like Casey Dunne, a plumber from Meath who is part of the squad preparing for their opening game of the 2017 World Cup against Italy in Cairns tomorrow, and Wayne Kelly up north.

Steve Hogan, another Ulster-based volunteer, takes care of a lot of the admin but it is a skeleton operation. Even the old RLI website is gone. Click the link on their Facebook page and it takes you to a solicitor’s firm with absolutely no links to the sport.

The diet is hand-to-mouth.

Sport Ireland finally recognised rugby league — but it’s worth only €11,000 per year to them. Their World Cup kit cost €4,000 more than that.

Still, there are signs of positivity. There was a time when there were close to 20 teams on the island. The number is half that now but they are better organised — six in the Republic and four up north — and the rules better enforced.

Dunne’s Athboy Longhorns won this year’s Grand Final and their reward is a place in next year’s Challenge Cup.

“It’s one of the oldest knockout competitions in the world and we are the first Irish side in nearly 20 years to compete in the competition,” says Dunne from Australia. “It makes me laugh to think where we have come from when travelling to games with barely enough players to actually being involved in such a prestigious tournament.”

Egan sees the potential for much more besides.

“Our geographic spread is good and teams aren’t competing for players as used to be the case. Ideally, we’d like a team playing League One (England’s third-tier). The potential is there. Ireland played England in Huddersfield in the 2013 World Cup and it was the first game to sell out.

“That’s because there’s a huge Irish diaspora in the north. There’s been lots of talk and interest in it before. There are French teams playing in England. Toronto Wolfpack were in League One last year and got promoted to the Championship so an Irish team would have a lot going for it.”

A look at coach Mark Aston’s squad backs that up.

Fourteen of the 24 — first and second generation Irish — play in England’s Super League and another in Australia’s NRL. Props Brad Singleton and Anthony Mullally play with Leeds Rhinos who won the Grand Final earlier this month at Old Trafford.

Five more are in the English Championship. Half-a-dozen are Irish born and/or bred, like Dunne, who came to the game from union, GAA or other backgrounds. Four of those made the move across the Irish Sea to establish themselves with pro or semi-pro clubs.

But the sport’s subsistence existence is always apparent, even at the World Cup. They wouldn’t have a team there if it wasn’t for title sponsor McGettigan’s hotel group and they managed to add Recon Technology to the back of their jersey just as the kit went to print.

The tournament organisers pay for air fare, accommodation, food and transport, but a fundraiser for the Irish team has been arranged in Perth and players have been asked to sell raffle tickets while away in order to pay for a basic daily expense rate.

Ireland are in a tough pool: Italy lean heavily on NRL star power, league is the national sport in Papua New Guinea (and they will play on home soil in Port Moresby), while Wales are decent but missing some big names.

“We’re in a better pool than was the case in 2013 when we had England, Australia and Fiji,” Egan reasons.

“We’ve a really good chance of making it out of the pool but the Italians have a lot of Aussie heritage players and they will be tough for a start.” Then again, it’s not as if adversity is anything new.

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