AMNRL Donnybrook Cup Preview: USA Tomahawks vs. Irish Wolfhounds

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St.Patrick’s Day weekend will see the USA Tomahawks hosting the Irish Wolfhounds at the Charles Martin Memorial Stadium, Philadelphia, the first such clash since 2004. The Wolfhounds were resounding 74-16 winners that day but given the developmental progress made by the AMNRL the score is expected to be much closer this time around.

It will be a rough/tough game as always when the USA plays Ireland

Marcus Vassilakopoulos, USA Tomahawks coaching staff

However, big as the game is for the participants, it may have even bigger consequences off the field; coming as it does, smack in the middle of a tussle for the control of rugby league’s future in America.

A tumultuous few weeks in December through January 2011 saw the emergence of a rival competition, the USARL, with seven AMNRL teams immediately switching their allegiance to it from the AMNRL.

AMNRL president, David Niu, has remained stoic in the face of this schism, continuing to work to develop the sport of rugby league across America; indeed shortly before the split a major initiative to open-up the Western states to the game was launched. Those plans included the island of Hawaii, which provides four squad members for the upcoming game.

Whether the split will fuel the expansion, as the two organisations compete for territories, or thwart it as precious resources are split, remains to be seen.

The AMNRL remain the internationally recognised governing body for the development of rugby league in American and as such retain a massive trumo card; the eligibility of US players to participate in international competitions.

That trump card was played last week with the AMNRL confirming their eligibility rules, which required players either to be registered with an AMNRL team or to apply for an at-large status. In neither case would they be able to play for a team from a rival league.

That potentially deprives the Tomahawks of the services of fifteen players from their Atlantic Cup 2010 squad; leaving USARL affiliated players with a stark choice: forego international games or revert back to an AMNRL affiliated team.

Former Leeds and Sheffield Super League player, Marcus Vassilakopoulos, will assist Niu in coaching the team ahead of the game, with former Bradford Bulls and Penrith Panthers coach, Matthew Elliot, set to take the reins for the World Cup qualifiers.

Vassilakopoulos is unfazed by the rebel league’s posturing and feels the selection of the USA Tomahawks, due to be announced March 16th, will present few problems, saying:

Any player who is registered with a AMNRL club or with the AMNRL as a at large player will be eligible. So we have a great number of players available for this game and are looking forward to selecting the team.

We have a good nucleus of players from the Atlantic Cup and are adding more quality players to that list from the east coast and out in Hawaii,the only headache will be turning some guys down!!!

Vassilakopoulos was quick to point out some of the quality players available, stating:

Conway Maraki was huge for us in the Atlantic Cup and Nate Smith had a big points haul as always so we’ll be looking forward to those guys playing again.

(And there a some newcomers too …) look out for Pila Taufa again, his game will keep on improving as will Vaka Munapoa, whilst the highly impressive Luke Hulme is also pushing for selection.

We have several other Hawaiin guys we are looking at and a couple of new faces from the New York area as well.

With the above players showing up well in the selection process it does seem that the Tomahawks will field a highly talented line-up against the Wolfhounds who are selected from the Rugby League Ireland (RLI) domestic competition.

Maraki, who scored a hat-trick of tries against Jamaica in the Atlantic Cup, is likely to again be a factor against the Irish; but the Tomahawks will have to do without their experienced halfback pairing, Damien O’Malvaney (New Haven Warriors) and Brent Shorten (Jacksonville Axemen). O’Malvaney bagged three tries against the Canadians to seal the Atlantic Cup MVP award, yet because of their USARL affiliation neither player is available.

The wonderfully named Apple Pope skippers the Tomahawks for a fourth straight game; leading a squad that include seven new faces in addition to ten members of the successfull Atlantic Cup squad.

Despite his optimism surrounding the squad strength Vassilakopoulos knows this is not going to be a holiday stroll, adding:

It will be a rough/tough game as always when the USA plays Ireland with the first 20 minutes both teams trying to feel each other out. I’m sure it is going to be a close game played by two very proud sets of lads.

Vassilakopoulos’s reference to Hawaii will have rugby league fans excited at adding another international venue to their collection of passport stamps. Certainly both Vass and David Niu are bullish about the prospects for developing the game on the island, especially given the impact that Maui born Pila Taufa had on the Atlantic Cup, where his excellent displays earned him a call-up to the represent the USA in the Wellington and Las Vegas Stages of the World Series of Rugby 7s.

As for the domestic scene, the 14th season of AMNRL rugby is due to kickoff later this year, with an announcement of the line-up and schedule eagerly anticipated. The competition is expected to comprise teams from New York Knights, New York Raiders, Aston Bulls, Bucks County Sharks and Connecticut Wildcats, with the AMNRL also considering Chicago – although their full entry may not come until next season.

The prospects of the new season are not lost on Vassilakopoulos who says:

The 2011 AMNRL season will be a great one,we are looking forward to the (Bucks County) Sharks being back and it will be a hotly contested competition this year with some evenly matched teams.

We are also looking to possibly play double/triple headers in the Chicago area to help further the development in the mid west and the great work Mike Featherstone is doing up there.

So look out for that as well as the great annual tournament in Sea Isle NJ – which will be attended by Chicago again – and possibly some cross country games with the teams up in Canada.

We will finish off with a home and away series with Canada and the WCQ in November against Jamaica and South Africa.

All in all 2011 is likely to be a watershed season for rugby league development in the USA; with tantalising prospects for exciting growth balanced by the prospects of an inter-league tussle that threatens to cast a shadow on proceedings.

USA Tomahawks Squad:

USATomahawks.jpg Apple Pope (Capt), Calder Orr, Xavier Lozinguez, Kelly McGill, Conway Maraki, Andrew Kneisly,Mike Cartwright, Mike Tuala, Salesi Tongamoa, Sione Taufa, Mike Brazill, Curtis Cunz, Andrew Malafu, Nate Smith, Charles Cortalano, Sean Taylor, Gareth Baxendale

Irish Wolfhounds Squad:

rli_logo.jpg Simon Deevy (Athboy), Ross Bergin (Bristol Sonics), Paddy Barcoe (Carlow Crusaders), Adam Hughes, Alan Trenier, Brian Flanagan (All Dublin City Exiles), Joe Smith (Northampton Demons), Ashley Huck, Peter Howard (Both Siddal ARLFC), Alan McNamara, Brendan Guilfoyle, Mark O’Neill, Mark Tuohy, Sean Carmody (All Treaty City Titans), John Bagnall (Tullamore Knights), Ben Moriarty, Jimmy Giblin (Both West London Sharks)