The NSW Blues have been named for the first game of the 2017 #Origin series.
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I can visualise many people wondering who Dave Southern is at this point, and that?s unsurprising. In many ways he is an unremarkable man ? a native of Widnes who now works with the Diabetes Federation of Ireland who lists Jim Mills as one of his boyhood heroes. However, Dave Southern should be championed as one of the true unsung heroes of Rugby League. For he is head of the Rugby League in Ireland (RLI).
I flew over to Dublin to interview him because this is an exciting time for Irish Rugby League ? they have just set up their own Conference League with clubs from the Irish rugby union being invited to join the four existing Rugby League clubs in Ireland. His accent sounded like he was a native of Anglesey, which must be a symptom of his native Widnes accent and the adopted brogue of his current country of residence, via a 12 year stint in South Africa. I met him in SuperMacs (when will they open them in the UK?) on O?Connell Street, walked with him past the Pound Shop (where everything seemed to be ?1.95 ? only in Ireland!) to his office where this interview was conducted.
His passion and enthusiasm for the game was obvious from the outset. You need to be enthusiastic in a role like his as there is so much effort needed for the game to achieve anything over there. How many people would act as a guarantor for any losses that the international between Ireland and France at Dalymount Park in Dublin incurred? How many people would almost single handedly challenge the Irish rugby union who had questioned the benefits of a Rugby League Conference? How many people would carry on even though the D?il ?ireann?s (the Irish Parliament) red tape means you are not recognised as a national governing body, meaning no funding from the government?
It?s all seems to be a pretty thankless job. Yet Dave is hopeful that, the Conference League will be a success and will provide a foundation on which the success of the (almost entirely second or third generation) national team can be built.
Another 6 Tackles: Is it fair to describe you as the head of the Irish Rugby League? Dave Southern: I suppose that?s fair comment ? I am the chairperson.
A6T: I want to discuss the new conference league with you. What is the long term aim of the new league? DS: The long term aim is to have a vibrant, organised structure over here that is going to rank right up there with what you have in the UK. There?s got to be a two-pronged attack. The local domestic league in the summer, leading up to a Grand Final and then the International calendar in the Autumn, supplemented with a development programme and working with schools in the long term, and there are plans afoot. I think we need to be aspirational and say that if that takes on board Super League eventually then so be it, we?ll look at that, but more realistically we?re looking at parity with the conferences in England and Wales and look into going into play offs with them. What with this and a strong run at the internationals this year, with the European four nations coming up in October and November ? we?ll certainly have a hand in that ? we?ll be looking to drive home the message that the game is alive and well over here. Going forward, we?ll be looking to go into National League 3 and get a team over there and move up the ladder.
A6T: Isn?t it unrealistic to say that there?ll be an Irish Super League team one day? DS: I think it?s aspirational. I don?t think it?s unrealistic to look at that but you?ve got to get the ducks in a row. We?ve got to have the sequence of events flowing. I think it?s unrealistic at the moment ? I think the visibility, the understanding and the exposure that the game commands in Ireland at the moment is negligible and I think we?ve got to be big enough to admit that. We don?t see that as a negative point, either. I think there?s a good understanding of the game in that people know Wigan, St Helens and Bradford but that?s because you get Sky TV saturation and people get BBC - people will be tuning in to the Challenge Cup 5th round on Sunday ? so from that point of view there?s no problem at all in people understanding. It?s just letting them know that it?s operational on the ground. There?s a big marketing campaign to be done and I think that?s one of the challenges that?s ahead of us. To it?s discredit, I don?t think the Rugby League?s been very good at marketing the product it?s got. Everyone talks about the superb product on the field, but it?s off the field where we don?t seem to get the plaudits and respect we deserve. Any other sport, we?d be everywhere ? no doubt about it.
A6T: What kind of media coverage do you get over here? DS: We?re getting some good contacts within the media. A lot of the coverage is about the discussions with our colleagues at the rugby union, where they?ve tried to ?dissuade?, to use a politically correct term, rugby union clubs and inform them that this would not be their desired approach to have them cuddling up to rugby league and have them playing in the summer. So we?ve had some really good coverage on the back of that.
A6T: Why have the IRU done that? DS: I think it?s misunderstanding. The bottom line is that I think they perceive a potential threat with us going forward we always set out the positives and show how we can work together and compliment each others sport.
A6T: With you being a summer sport over here, you?d be in competition for participants and spectators with the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association, who govern Gaelic Football and Hurling) Have you had any contact from them? DS: No, and we wouldn?t expect any, not from the GAA ? they?re too big. It?d be the equivalent of the Premier League in England worrying about a local Sunday league game.
A6T: We?ve heard all about Brian Carney having come from a Gaelic football background to play Rugby League. Will many other Gaelic footballers or even rugby union players fancy following in his footsteps? DS: I think so, of course there will. I just think they haven?t been exposed to the game yet. I don?t think the wealth of talent here has ever been invited on to the Rugby League stage, either. That?s something that we can work on. There?s only about 6 teams in Ireland at the moment.
A6T: What?s their level of competition like? DS: It?s very basic. The top team, the Dublin City Exiles, have a lot of Australians playing with their team supplemented by local Irish lads, but they know the game inside out so they?d be the standard bearer. The Dublin Blues would seem to fall into a very close second behind them and they seem to work off sheer determination and grit. Once you look at the standard in the UK, these teams are BARLA standard, and not North West Counties or Pennine League standard, they?d be down the pecking order. But that?s a start, and we?ve got to start somewhere. Don?t think it?s a case that we?re looking for overnight success ? it?s going to be a long road ahead.
A6T: At the end of that road will be the International game. What are your thoughts about the International game?s place within Rugby League at the moment? DS: I think it?s going in the right direction but I think it needs a lot more work done on it. We?ve got to look at getting Ireland back into the ultimate representative team and have it called ?Great Britain AND Ireland?. If you have Irish people in there, I think it?s a little bit, well, insensitive having Irish people playing under the Great Britain banner and having union jack flags waved and British anthems etc ? we need to look at all that and sit down with the powers that be at Red Hall and go through that, and I think we can do that successfully. I don?t think they have an agenda, I just think it?s a little bit of education they need.
A6T: How important is the next World Cup? DS: I think it?s crucial for development. It certainly gives teams and countries something to aim for and it will give them a direction. It?s four years away and I think it?s a good target to go at. You?ve seen now what the rugby union world cup has done and I think they?ve shown that the people in Australia will come out and support an event and, given the exposure of Rugby League in Queensland, New South Wales and the Eastern Seaboard, I don?t see any reasons why Rugby League can?t emulate the support they achieved for the rugby union world cup.
A6T: Will the fact it?s four years away be a carrot to dangle in front of players in the new Conference that they could play at that World Cup? DS: I think it is, yes. We?ve got to take it on board as a very positive step forward having the World Cup and utilise the new competition that we?re going to put in place as a mass production line of talent coming through. There?s so much to do but in an ideal world, yes, we can identify talent and fast track that into some sort of programme where they?ll have regular training, regular competition and on-going discussion with the high-performance units that we?re going to have at the heart of it. We?ve also got to look at supplementing some of the Super League players and National League players and using the squad system so that we?re relying less on the grandparent ruling. But at this stage, we?ve got to play with the cards that we?re dealt and at this stage I don?t see any reason why we should hold that ruling back when there?s the opportunity to put a good quality side out there.
A6T: The attendances for the International games in Ireland, Scotland and even Wales, to a degree, have been very disappointing. Do you think there is a market out there for the international game, given the amount of Super League players coming over to play, some of whom have very tenuous links to Ireland? DS: I definitely do think there?s a market. It?s got to be more imbedded in the psyche. You?ve got to understand the way that people look at the six nations ? people come out of the woodwork to support it. It?s got an identity all of it?s own. People that never got to see a club game or a provincial game are flocking for tickets to a big international game. That?s the success of marketing the rugby union product, something which they marketed again very successfully at the rugby union world cup. They made it out to be the event. Even though you had no interest whatsoever, you were almost dragged along by the sheer magnetism of the occasion. Rugby League doesn?t have that. League is seen as a very poor relation to that. And I can see exactly why; because we?ve not got the exposure, we?ve not got the appeal at this stage. I don?t think that?s impossible to achieve. What you?ve got to look at is what happened in New Zealand with the Auckland Warriors. That was a rugby union mad community and all of a sudden you?ve got the Warriors on the map in the early 90s and all of a sudden, you?ve got a different take on the whole thing. They did it right. They did the visibility, they did the awareness, the promotion and the marketing and they ticked all the boxes. And they had a groundswell of support going forward. So it?s almost like someone?s got to stand up and say, ?the King?s got no clothes on?. And as we all know in the fairytale, everyone will then agree. But it needs one person to stand up and say it again. That?s not to say we need one person to stand up and say, ?League is good?, we need knock on effects. We?ve been in the shadows of the rugby union for so long but I don?t see it going on much longer. It?s got to come from a central venue and I?ll be looking for a challenge coming from either the European Federation or from Red Hall. But certainly the International game has got to be the standard bearer and has got to be the pinnacle of players to represent their country and move away from the club structure to a degree and put more emphasis on the International calendar.
A6T: Do you think the lack of home-grown Irish players may adversely affect the identity that supporters have with the players representing Ireland? DS: I don?t think it does and I don?t think it should. Ireland has been the biggest exporter of people over the last century so they?ve gone to fields very far away and have been welcomed with open arms. With people putting their hands up and saying, ?I want to play for Ireland? I don?t see as getting a negative response. People have just got to take stock of where Ireland has come from and how they were welcomed. Someone in the reverse scenario, with Irish heritage wanting to play for Ireland, I don?t see as being an issue at all. You saw in the 1990 and 1994 Soccer World Cups when Jack Charlton was in charge ? he took the ?grandparent rule? to new heights and had no local guys in the team. Certain sections of the media will point the finger but I?d say to that, well, we?ve got to start somewhere. And as long as they buy into the understanding of what it means to be Irish, the Irish people will be very proud of whoever goes on to play in the green of Ireland.
A6T: Is there a schools programme? DS: No, not at this stage. I think that?s another item on the agenda that we need to look at. But I think we?ve got to now get serious. We?ve got the George Hotel event coming up on 20th March with Brian Carney, (Carney, as it happened, could not attend the evening ? which was a sell-out) so we?ll be looking to get as many people as possible there which will give us the financial support to help in our plans for the future. We?ve got to say now that without resource and without funding, we?re not going to go anywhere, and it could be the same old story of having plenty of potential but didn?t have a direction.
A6T: Where will the funding come from for this? DS: The funding?s going to come from people like myself and others. We?re looking to roll out a business plan with a share option attached which will generate a resource of funding to be able to be able to employ a business manager. This will be sent to people that we know have an interest in Ireland and that might have an interest in Rugby League, and we?ll be asking them to invest with the ultimate aim of developing the game over here as a brand leader on the sporting landscape. Dividends won?t be paid initially ? they?ll be ploughed back in ? so that we can see a good degree of work being undertaken. Once we move into the world of full time employees, then we will be able to stand over a sustainable organisational structure.
A6T: David Waite is no longer the Great Britain coach so he can concentrate on his development work, which is part of the ?World Class Programme?. Have you had any contact from him in relation to the development in Ireland? DS: No. The reason for that is that as a sovereign state, it would be the equivalent of David Waite going to France.
A6T: Even though we?re led to believe that the team name is ?Great Britain and Ireland?? DS: It comes down to the paymaster - UK Sport or Sport England. I don?t think they?d be that enamoured to support another country. I think the United Kingdom has got a strict parameter on what they see as development and the United Kingdom want to develop the game of Rugby League in the United Kingdom. I don?t think the British Government would be too pleased about going out with a programme in Istanbul, for example, so why would they go out to Ireland where they have no control and no jurisdiction whatsoever?
A6T: The Irish Prime Minister is very keen to stress the importance of sport. Has there been any contact with the Irish government about your plans? DS: There has, yes. We?ve made a submission to the Irish Sports Council a few years ago to receive government funding and get recognition through the Irish sports council but I think they work off a legacy of bad management in that department. Whoever was the sports minister in days gone by used to take it on his or her own shoulders to anoint national governing bodies. So you had some very bizarre sports being given national governing body status at the whim of the sports minister, which in this day and age, wouldn?t necessarily stand up to the criteria. So we?re coming off the back of a saturation of the market of national governing bodies for sport who are in the driving seat. And when we?ve tried to get in there, there?s a reluctance to adopt us because their monies from the government, through the sports lottery funding, is limited. So we?re biding our time, we?re not rushing it and we?re keeping in contact with them and I go over there now and again, just to talk to various people.
A6T: Lansdowne Road is going to be refurbished soon. Will Rugby League have a part to play at the new ground? DS: Absolutely. It?ll be termed the National Stadium and will be a 55,000 all seater stadium, there?ll be Government Funding to pay for that so myself as a taxpayer, I?ll have a stake in that stadium. The main tenants will be the Irish Soccer team and the IRFU but with the significant funding from the government, of course you?ll be able to play Gaelic games there, of course you?ll be able to play other field sports there and Rugby League is one of those. We?ve already mentioned this to our counterparts at the IRFU in our meeting last week and said we?ll be very interested, in time to come, about utilising the new stadium and there was no problem at all. I think the attitude is that you pay your money, you take your choice.
Taken from Another 6 Tackles - Supporters Fanzine Interview with Dave Southern (RLI Chair)