It's not often you get to be part of something exciting and historic like the recent effort of the USA Tomahawks to qualify for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup in England and Wales. I was fortunate enough to enjoy the ride first hand with a fantastic squad, a top class coaching staff, and a great mate as head coach. Matty Elliott, first helped out with the Tomahawks for the 2007 RLWCQ in England where we took on the might of Samoa, stocked with ex New Zealand internationals looking to prove a point. Unfortunately for us (and Matty) we happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were beaten convincingly by a superior team. Whilst Matty was busy with head coaching responsibilities overseas, we continued down the path of trying to improve our local competition and the opportunities for our national team.
It was not longer after the loss to Samoa that we were informed by the RLIF that some changes were being made to the qualification process for the 2013 RLWC, and that an Atlantic Qualifier would advance to the main draw via a 2011 Tournament. Motivated by the opportunity, we played internationals with Jamaica and Canada. In October of 2010, we submitted a proposal (which was approved by the RLIF and RFL) to host the RLWCQ's in Philadelphia. So we set about formulating a plan to host a great tournament, and worked on putting together a squad that could advance us to the next stage. One of my first calls was to get Matty back on board to lead our coaching staff with the support of long time Tomahawks coaching staff member Shane 'Magic' Millard. It was a yes from Matty, but unfortunately a no from 'Magic' as he had family commitments.
It was around November 2010 after we had beaten Jamaica and Canada to win the Atlantic Cup that Matty and I really started to dig into evaluating the standard of our local talent and identifying who would be available from our base of eligible foreign professionals. With feedback from other coaching staffers and league administration based in the USA, led by Marcus Vassilokopoulos, Rob Balachandran, Matt Astill, Jeff Preston, Jack Breen, Rob Irwin, and Christian Rahui we felt like we were zeroing in on a handy player pool and a defined strategy that would allow us to organize a bunch of moving pieces together into an effective national team program. I was the point guy to keep Matty abreast of our local developments, and crafting a timeline to get us to October 2011.
So far, so good....
It wasn't long until word of a split within our local competition had surfaced in December a few days before Christmas 2010. Initially it was a private matter via an internal email and document sent to my attention from a group planning to take rugby league in a new direction in the USA, then publicly via the same correspondence being featured in a UK rugby league magazine. As you can imagine, we went from being pretty excited about the plans for 2011 to a sense of disappointment and the unfortunate scenario that the game might suffer as we slumped into a 'Knee Deep' pile of _ _ _ _! Plenty was said from all over the place. The blogoshpere was alight with all kinds of crazy claims and opinion. Either way, everyone who had an interest was entitled to their point of view. I made an effort not to add to the discussion publicly and in the end we all just got on with it. Not the ideal situation, but probably the best course of action in the short term.
So far, not so good....
Whilst I was dealing with a split in our local league and the AMNRL battling to keep the local competition and USA Tomahawks plans together, Matty was being 'relieved' of his head coaching position at the Penrith Panthers in the NRL in Australia. In fact, by the end of June he was gone.
So, how else to deal with the issues at either end of our personal and professional careers then to..........head to Hawaii in July!!!
Whilst there was a clear focus in meeting in Hawaii to not only evaluate the local talent, and work with the local administrators to get systems in place, it also gave Matty and I a chance to focus on the national team program, drill down on a plan to win the RLWCQ tournament and set about putting the USA Tomahawks into the 2013 RLWC for the first ever time. It was a crazy scenario, in what was becoming a crazy year for both us. Two old mates who 20 years earlier had traveled to Hawaii on an end of season trip with the St.George Dragons in 1991. Both were supposed to head back home that year to start pre season practice. One made it, the other didn't. Who would have known that the next time either of us would set foot on these sandy islands in the Pacific together we would be involved in the same game that had taken us on such polar opposite paths.
So it would come as no surprise that the plans for the USA Tomahawks really started to take shape knee deep in the clear blue waters of Waikiki Beach! Via a number of 'whiteboard' sessions with a backdrop of Diamond Head, in between giant sea turtles terrifying Japanese tourists at the waters edge, and amidst the colliding bodies of Hawaiian Rugby League players in Kapiolani Park we agreed that regardless of the division and disruption to our domestic program, we had to have a clear focus for preparing our national team to be ready come October. Matty outlined a plan, and I prepared the framework that we would execute locally until he would join us in camp for the RLWCQ's.
So far, so good again.....
From the minute we first assembled at the team hotel I knew we had a special group of people. In the initial team meeting when each player talked about his American heritage it was obvious that everyone cared and respected what they were representing, what had come before them, and the tremendous opportunity in front of them. It was a meeting I won't soon forget, and when Matty's last words to the group were, 'You guys can do something really special here. Enjoy the tournament. Enjoy the experience. Enjoy each other. Best mates for life' - I knew we were on our way. I made a point of watching the first practice session that afternoon. It was the last time I spent any extended time around the playing group at practice or meetings. I had no doubt how well they would perform against South Africa and Jamaica. The rest is history.
So throughout all the drama, the high and lows of a fascinating year for rugby league in America, one thing held true that is indicative to the culture and personality of the sport. That good mates stick together through tough times.
To our coaching staff; Matty, Vassy, Lee, Jack, Doc Wetzler and Doc Kazanjian; all the players who have been part of this assembly and Tomahawks squads over the past years, to our core group who have helped every step of the way; Bobo, Rob Irwin, Matty A, Christian, Jeff Preston, 'Magic', Chief, Chris, Stellutes, Cory, Super Dave, Billy Horan, Billy Hansbury, Butchie, Mikey, Bobby W, Redstripe, Chris Cole, Jan & Linda and the SG Team, Greg Peter, Frankie, Hick, Mike McGee, and all the friends, family and fans of the AMNRL - Thank you!
"Best mates for life"
Here's to a great 2012 and the USA Tomahawks playing in the 2013 RLWC! And cheers to wading Knee Deep in the Pacific Ocean off Waikiki Beach!
Go Tomahawks! Go AMNRL!