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Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
AAP/PA Images Luke Keary is a world-class addition for Ireland.
# Rugby League
'They're Irish. They're willing to spill blood for their country'
Ireland kick off their Rugby League World Cup campaign against Jamaica tomorrow.

THE HEAD COACH of Ireland’s rugby league team, Ged Corcoran, has a message for sports fans in this country who have yet to be converted to the 13-player code.

Ireland’s World Cup campaign kicks off tomorrow with a highly-anticipated clash against Jamaica in Leeds [KO 5pm, BBC2], and Corcoran is hoping that plenty of people back home will be supporting.

“They’ll see an exciting brand of football,” promises Corcoran.

“We’ve got enthusiastic players that are proud to pull on this green jersey. We’re very patriotic, so get behind us.”

This is a huge World Cup for Ireland. After exits at the pool stages of the last two tournaments, Corcoran is calling on his squad to draw on the spirit of 2000, when the Irish side reached the quarter-finals.

There has even been talk of Ireland as dark horses for this World Cup, which was supposed to happen last year but was delayed by the pandemic.

With the extra year, Corcoran, his highly-regarded assistant Joe O’Callaghan, and Rugby League Ireland have worked to pull together an impressive squad of players from the English leagues and the NRL in Australia. That said, several players approached them, eager to represent Ireland at the World Cup.

Only one of the players in the 24-man squad is Irish-born, Balbriggan man Ronan Michael, who has already become the first such player to play in the Super League since Brian Carney [who also played union for Munster and Ireland].

As has long been the case, the Irish squad is made up of players who qualify for Ireland through their family. It’s not exclusive to Ireland, with several of the other squads at the World Cup stacked with players born in Australia or New Zealand.

Ireland head coach Corcoran himself was born and bred in Offaly before moving to the UK with his family and enjoying a fine career with clubs like Halifax and Sheffield, as well as earning 11 Ireland caps.

ged-corcoran ©INPHO Corcoran in an Ireland jersey back in 2005. ©INPHO

“I’m immensely proud,” says Corcoran of being the boss, having worked as an assistant coach at the last two World Cups and done lots of other roles for Rugby League Ireland.

“To coach this magnitude of players, it’s massive. I feel very honoured and privileged.” 

The star addition for Ireland is new vice-captain Luke Keary of the Sydney Roosters. He’s a sensational player who has won three NRL titles. 30-year-old Keary would have played for Ireland at the 2017 World Cup but for injury and though he was capped by Australia in 2018, he put his hand up to feature for Ireland this year [players can switch nations in rugby league], qualifying through his grandfather, who was born in Loughrea, County Galway. Keary spoke recently of how he hopes to visit Ireland for the first time after this World Cup. 

“He’s a typical Galway man!” says Corcoran. “He speaks very proudly of his heritage and with a great smile on his face when he does so.

“Having him in the team along with another great player in Joe Keyes, they complement each other very well.”

Keyes is one of the previously-capped Irish players and there is plenty of class in this squad, including four more players from the NRL and lots who are based in England, including Leeds pair James Bentley and Richie Myler – an ex-English international. Hull KR prop George King is the captain, with his brother Toby also in the squad. 

Understandably, Corcoran has put a huge focus on culture and making sure his players feel fully connected to Ireland. The Irish jerseys for the World Cup have the number 32, on them, recognising all the counties of Ireland, as well as four stripes to symbolise the four Irish provinces.

The phrase ‘Ní neart go cur le chéile’ has become their slogan. It’s one that Michael D. Higgins likes to cite too: there’s no strength without unity.

“Culture is everything,” says Corcoran. “You’ve got to have an identity. Our identity is about being Irish. The 32 counties, the understanding of where you come from, where your bloodline comes from, it’s all family-led.”

That squad has links to Antrim, Galway, Dublin, and the rest of the country. Corcoran says the players have embraced exercises designed to dig further into their family roots.

leeds-rhinos-v-wigan-warriors-betfred-super-league-headingley-stadium PA Leeds playmaker Richie Myler will star for Ireland. PA

“I found it very powerful once the players started talking about their heritage and where their family comes from,” says Corcoran.

“It was a big part of the selection process, speaking to the players and getting a good understanding of their beliefs about their upbringing, the culture within their home life.”

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Corcoran and his players believe that repeating the success of the 2000 team is “definitely attainable” and there is hope that any such exploits can really help to grow rugby league back in Ireland. After opening against Jamaica, they will play the Michael Cheika-coached Lebanon and then heavyweights New Zealand in Group C.

Rugby league is a minority sport in Ireland with an amateur domestic league, but lots of seriously passionate people are involved. There is major competition from the GAA and rugby union, among other sports, but Corcoran believes league can grow quickly even if the last few years have been challenging.

“Irish rugby league has gone a bit sideways,” he admits. “It’s been a bit of a side-step, we need more people driving it. That’s something we went to heavily invest in – the pathways programme, not just the senior programme.

“We want to invest the expertise that Joe [O'Callaghan] has from his experience in Australia. We need to coach the coaches, as well as the players.”

For younger players in the Irish domestic game, there is surely inspiration in seeing the rise of 22-year-old Dublin man Michael, who has been playing in England since 2018.

But Corcoran explains that he simply sees Michael as an Irish player, exactly like the rest of his ambitious squad.

“It’s great that Ronan is one of the homegrown in there but I don’t look at Ronan as any different to any of the other boys.

“Like myself, if they’re going to commit, they’re Irish in my eyes. People talk about this and that but to me, it’s a load of nonsense.

“They’re Irish. They’re willing to put their bodies on the line, willing to spill blood for their country, with all that emotion and blood and sweat and tears.”

- This article was updated at 12.03pm to correct the eighth paragraph, which had incorrectly stated that Irish-born players had not played in recent World Cups.

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