Andy Farrell not alone on the paths less travelled between league and union

Fuifui Moimoi built a career, and his reputation, on bulk and what he could do with it.

Andy Farrell not alone on the paths less travelled between league and union

Fuifui Moimoi built a career, and his reputation, on bulk and what he could do with it.

A cult figure at Parramatta Eels in Australia's NRL, he was tipping 20 stone and not far off 40 years of age by the time he rumbled on to Butts Park Arena for his Workington Town debut in May of 2018 with his new team having already bulldozed their way through the Coventry Bears.

He can't have been expecting much in the way of opposition as he ran onto a ball 20 yards out from the Bears line so the shock must have been seismic when an unknown Irish lad by the name of Peter Ryan slammed into him and left Moimoi spreadeagled on the hard, patchy turf.

The amateur footage of the tackle ends with an appreciative smattering of applause from the locals. Sky Sports picked up on it too and streamed the clip on their rugby league account. Peter Ryan, a green union convert from Nenagh Ormonde, had arrived.

“When I saw him my eyes kinda lit up and I thought I'd go and whack him first and I basically put him on his arse,” says Ryan who was playing just his second game for the Bears at the time. “I think I just got lucky. Every time I've played him since he has shot out to try and get me.”

Ryan had been made to wait for his chance.

His contract with the Bears, a semi-pro side in England's third tier, had been signed just three years after his first game in the 13-man code. It took months after his arrival to smooth enough edges so that he could earn a debut but making it that far was a significant staging post in itself.

There is no established pathway for young Irish players through to the English professional game. Good work is being done by Rugby League Ireland to bump up the playing numbers and improve the domestic league but it is a trickle rather than a flow of talent from here to there.

Brian Carney was an established Super League star, most notably with Wigan and Great Britain. He played NRL with Newcastle Knights too but his journey from Wexford to such unfamiliar heights started when he was spotted playing for the Ireland Students.

Ronan Michael, who is spending the year in the NRL with Canberra and is under contract with Huddersfield Giants, garnered attention playing for an Ireland U17s side. Ryan made his move via some standout displays at the Universities World Cup and a scholarship at Coventry Uni.

If Andy Farrell's route from rugby league's north of England heartland to head coach with the Ireland union national side is unlikely then it is positively straightforward when compared to the difficulties involved for Irish players pushing upstream in league circles.

“It's not easy,” says Ryan who will qualify as a biology teacher during this third season with the Bears. “It's a tough thing to do. I'm not exactly in a major hotbed here like Wigan where it is all rugby league. I have other commitments as well.

“So you are in university, doing some other work and trying to socialise as well because you have basically moved in with no-one you know. So you are trying to make friends and play a professional standard of rugby. It's tough but a great experience. I wouldn't change it.”

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There are no claps on the back when a young Irish player tries his hand at rugby league rather than football across the Irish Sea. And there is none of the hand-wringing and wailing that follows when another young GAA player opts for a shot at Aussie Rules.

Ryan's parents have finally got their heads around the rules but he will still return home at times and be asked by some how his sevens career is panning out. That's just the way it is. Rugby league is out of sight and the Irish lads who try their hand at it are very much out of mind here.

Carney's career remains virtually unheralded in his home country. Players like Wayne Kerr and Matty Hadden took the same path, building successful bodies of work and enviable reputations in hotbeds like Oldham and Rochdale but to no acclaim back home.

What's clear is that there is potential for far more to have a go. Michael's potential has been franked by his temporary move to Australia and Sheffield Eagles have high hopes for young James Mulvaney who is currently on trial with the club in Yorkshire. The talent is there.

Stuart Littler knows that. A Wigan native, Littler had a long and successful playing career that included 19 caps for Ireland thanks to his Dublin links. He now doubles up as head coach to the Swinton Lions in Greater Manchester and the Ireland national team.

“It does take time to work on some of the Irish lads but if you do it right then there are some pots of gold like Brian Carney or Matty Hadden or Wayne Kerr out there with serious transferable skills. With the right coaching, boys like that can be even better than lads over here.”

Littler is just one among many examples of the Irish influence that runs through rugby league in the north of England where clubs like Wigan St Patricks, Widnes St Marie's and Halifax Irish are part of a tapestry that has stitched many an Irish surname through the game's ranks.

“There's a large Irish population in a lot of these areas up north going back a good few generations now so it is going to happen that a lot of these guys are going to grow up and become rugby league players,” says Ryan. “You've plenty of these heritage players like Liam Finn who have been stars of rugby league. I literally know nothing in terms of rugby league compared to lads like that so they are the ones that you learn off.

“You've the younger lads then like Calum O'Neill who is playing for Widnes, Dec O'Donnell for Workington and Liam Byrne with Wigan. They are all really proud to be Irish and they have gone through the whole rugby league system. They help Irish lads any way they can. Any time there are lads over they embrace them and welcome them and make sure they do all they can.”

That connection has been welded in recent World Cups where Ireland teams, like those of countries as diverse as Lebanon and Italy, have been filled with heritage players with top-level experience and supported by a smaller cast of domestic-based faces.

In an ideal world, Ireland would have its own club side competing and trying to climb its way up the pyramid in England. The Catalan Dragons and Toronto Wolfpack play Super League, Toulouse Olympique are a Championship outfit and Valencia Huracanes are poised to enter the third tier.

Ryan has seen the passion for league in the likes of Doncaster and Keighley and Rochdale where the local support can swell to a few thousand and every one of them knows every little thing about every players. Bringing an Irish club team to these parts would do wonders for the players here and the game.

“It's life and death in some places,” says Ryan. “It's like going to a GAA game back home.”

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