When Jamaica beat the USA earlier this month, the Reggae Warriors made history by qualifying for their first Rugby League World Cup and Romeo Monteith’s men are aiming to impress in the competition which, in 2021, will be hosted in England.
After the nations’ historic achievement, Get ’em Onside got in touch with the Jamaican head coach and the man in charge of the first Carribean nation to ever qualify for the competition is understandably proud of his team’s achievement. While confessing that the sport is a minor one in the country, he revealed that, nevertheless, people are keen to celebrate the victory. “Our minister of sport has acknowledged our historic feat with a press release,” he told the site, adding that “family and friends and people on the street have been buzzing about it.”
Such is the relatively small standing of rugby league in Jamaica, Monteith – in charge of the national team since 2011 – shared that there is a lack of facilities available to the team. Not that that, though, has stopped the passion shining through. “We have no home or field for rugby of any sort in Jamaica, so we share with football fields which are usually not suited because of stones and hardness,” he admitted. That has, in his opinion, hit the participation levels due to parents wanting to ensure children don’t feel the impact of injuries caused by such surfaces. Nevertheless, there has been increasing interest in recent years, he revealed. “There’s a lot of interest from young males and females to play,” he proudly explained. “They get excited whenever they see a ball and want to be involved. We have close to a thousand active players as we are in a dozen high schools, six colleges and we have a fair few community teams,” he added. The fact that the nation has qualified for the World Cup will, Monteith believes, lead to even more interest in the sport.
Within the Reggae Warriors’ ranks are Super League stars Ashton Golding and Ben Jones-Bishop of Leeds Rhinos and Wakefield Trinity respectively and, with the pair lining up against less illustrious players from lower league teams in the UK system, their impact has been vital for the team’s success. “Ben and Ashton were great for the group, humble and natural leaders,” he explained, adding that the Super League talent has always been keen help and represent the Jamaican nation. Indeed, the addition of Golding and Jones-Bishop to the squad were the final pieces of the national team jigsaw according to Monteith who expressed his belief that, ever since losing to USA’s Hawks in 2011, he and his team have been working towards this triumph. Of the victory in Jacksonville this month, the head coach admits that he was always confident. “We knew we could do it but we knew we had improve the coaching support,” he explained. He added that it was important to get a UK-based staff to keep the England-based players together so that the team would have chemistry. Demonstrating the desire for the game to succeed in Jamaica and the player’s will to represent the country, Monteith told the site that, given a lack of funding, “the players agreed to pay most of their airfares to play and, well, the rest is history.”
While Jamaica will head to England in 2021 as underdogs, their ambitious and confident head coach spoke of his belief that his team won’t be pushovers. “We are going to the cup to compete,” adding that “I think we’ll be most people’s second favourite team.” With a large population with Jamaican and Caribbean links in the UK, Monteith hopes that the team will be able to capture their imaginations. “We hope the entire Jamaican and Caribbean diaspora in the UK will rally around the team and it a carnival atmosphere,” he continued.
With a history of colour and celebration being historically linked with Jamaican sporting teams, their presence at the 2021 World Cup will no doubt catch the eye off the field. If Monteith and his team have their way, they will also impress on the pitch.
With the likes of Hemel Stags, Gloucestershire All Golds and Oxford all having briefly competed in Betfred League One in recent years, midlands outfit Coventry Bears are the last of the ‘expansion’ clubs added into the third tier recently who are left standing in the competition. Under the stewardship of Yorkshireman Tom Tsang, the Bears have never finished bottom of the third tier since joining the league in 2015 – unlike Hemel – and have claimed notable scalps along the way.
Now, with preparations well underway for their 2019 campaign, head coach Tsang is confident of improving on the club’s 11th placed finish last time out and surprising a few people. “We come back this week and I’m really happy with how things have gone this year,” the Huddersfield native told Get ’em Onside. “It’s probably the best year we have had in terms of keeping players on from the previous season. Seventeen lads from 2018 are staying with us and I think the most we’ve ever carried over is ten or eleven. We had quite a good year on and off the field last season and the guys have chosen to stick with us which is great.”
For a team like Coventry who are keen to develop as a club and progress in the league, continuity is, without doubt, vital, something Tsang agrees with. Despite losing key men Jason Bass (York City Knights) and Ben Stead (North Wales) from last season’s squad, the fact that the majority of the group remains gives Tsang confidence ahead of the campaign. “We’ve always found it tough at the start of the season due to that,” he admitted, suggesting that starting from scratch each season is, understandably, a challenge. However, Tsang also explained that he sees the team improve in the second half of the year and, bearing in mind the continuity expected for 2019, he will be hoping that Coventry can edge their way up the table. “The aims have sort of shifted a bit over the last few weeks due to a teams pulling out and such but, being realistic, we want to be in the top six of the league,” Tsang shared, further explaining that “towards the back end of last year we beat Hunslet, sixty seconds away from beating Whitehaven away, we beat Keighley and pushed Workington close.” Having kept together the majority of the squad from 2018, Tsang is clearly being ambitious and setting high targets for the Bears but, looking at who they triumphed over and competed with at the back end of the season, his goals are definitely understandable.
Based at the city’s Butts Park Arena – a stadium they share with the city’s original rugby union club – the Bears have a base in what is a fervent sporting city. While the Bears are labelled as an expansion club, the team were, for many years in the noughties, one of the best outside of the three professional leagues and had developed strong foundations for their entry to League One in 2015. “It’s sometime hard for us getting thrown in the same boat as the likes of Hemel, Gloucestershire and Oxford fall by the wayside,” Tsang admitted, the club’s long-serving coach adding that “we try to do everything in the right way, a progressive way,” clear in his desire to see the club continue to grow and develop. “To continue growing the game in the area we need teams more local to us,” he added and, given that their closest game in 2019 would be either London Skolars or either of the Welsh clubs, he definitely has a point. “We need rugby league to be thriving around us in order to be able to drive the interest. Sport needs those rivalries and derbies to draw the fans in and that’s something we’d love to have,” Tsang further outlined.
“Growth is a slow burner in the area if I’m honest,” he confessed. “We are competing with the football team, that’s massive in the area, they used to be successful but they’re still very well supported,” he explained and, given that rugby union’s Coventry RFC and, recently, Wasps are in the same territory, there is clear competition there to attract the city’s young sporting talent to rugby league. “There’s a lot of competing markets here and we are going up against a lot of different things but the positive is that people from Coventry absolutely love the city, anything that is for or from the city and they also love their sport. If you put the two together, they will get behind you,” he said. “If we keep progressing and establishing ourselves and the sport in the coming years, we will attract new fans. We’ve got a very solid, loyal fanbase of around 400 people which we are proud of and hope to add to,” Tsang imparted.
A passionate rugby league man, it could be that Tsang would get frustrated at seeing his team dismantle after every season – especially if they are to continue their development. “In previous years we’ve had guys that get picked up by clubs higher up which, I guess, being a newish club means that’s possibly our place in the game. When we give these guys the opportunities, they catch the eye and impress other coaches who are able to offer deals that we can’t match,” he admitted. However, in recent years the club has produced or developed talented players, one of whom next year will be the first player in Super League to have also played for the Bears. Joe Batchelor left Coventry after the 2016 season before joining York City Knights in League One, a team who competed in 2017 before winning the title in 2018, second-rower Batchelor starring. It was announced in May that the 23-year-old would join Super League’s League Leaders’ Shield winners St Helens and he is currently in his maiden pre-season campaign with the club. Threequarter Bass has also now departed Coventry for the Championship’s Knights and, coupled with Batchelor’s success, they indicate to Tsang that the club are, indeed, doing things the right way. “We’re very proud of it and it’s probably where we are at the moment,” he explained. “There’s definitely the potential there for similar things to happen to some more of our players. We have put together a tried-and-tested method for developing players,” he explained and the progress of former Bears players at other clubs is perhaps an indication that that method is working. Indeed, Peter Ryan – a player who initially signed his first professional deal with the Bears after an October 2017 trial while studying at the city’s university – went on to represent Ireland this post-season, showing another player the Coventry club have helped discover.
“At some point we want to be able to keep hold of these guys for a bit to help us get further up the ladder ourselves. We have a few in our squad for 2019 who could make quite a big splash,” Tsang noted, emphasising his ambition and desire for the club to continue developing. With his aims clear for next year and with his squad assembled, the Bears seem to be well-set for a best-ever league finish.
York City Knights are certainly a team on the up. A vibrant club where there was nearly no club at all, owner John Flatman and highly rated head coach James Ford have overseen the development of a rugby league revolution in the Minster city. Gone is the apathy and pessimism which surrounded the club for many of the recent years and they are now replaced with optimism, joy and excitement – both on the field and off it.
On the pitch, the club have just secured top spot in Betfred League One and the automatic promotion place that goes with it. The team had two nominees – Ben Cockayne and eventual winner Connor Robinson – for the league’s player of the year as well as Judah Mazive who, in his first full season of men’s rugby league, was nominated for the young player of the year award. To put the team’s success into perspective this season, a look at Robinson’s stats gives a small indication of how good this team is. 2018 saw the former Halifax half-back break both the points and goals tally records for rugby league in York, previously held by current Super League star Danny Brough all the way back in the mid-noughties. This is one of the best teams York City Knights, albeit in its’ short existence, has ever known and now the club is preparing to move into a new stadium in summer 2019 with Championship rugby league set to grace it.
While the star players – Cockayne, Robinson and St Helens bound Joe Batchelor – get a lot of the public praise in the media alongside Ford, the coach himself is always at pains to emphasise the work his backroom staff do to get the team to where they are and, in their ranks, are two brothers who are undeniably two of the unsung heroes in what is making rugby league in York exciting again, both on and off the field.
Will and George Leatt have been involved at York in recent years with the former being on of Ford’s assistant coaches while George, the younger of the two, is one of the most popular members of the staff and regularly cooks for the team while also being an equipment assistant at the club. When Get ’em Onside met the pair, it was just days after the club secured promotion after their last day win over Whitehaven at Bootham Crescent and spirits were certainly high.
They did, however, admit that winning Betfred League One wasn’t something they necessarily believe would come to pass back when the season started in February, something George alluded to. “At the start of the season I probably didn’t think we’d be champions. From the first game against Bradford, though, there’s been a buzz. We knew we were in the mix of the contenders and, if I’m honest, I thought the Bulls would win it – a lot of people did,” he explained. George developed that further, suggesting that “after the game against Bradford, it gave us a gauge of where we were,” agreeing that playing them first up was possibly good fortune in that regard.
As the season developed, York emerged as serious contenders to Bradford for the title and, for the York born Leatts, seeing their hometown club lift the trophy was superb. The club has, of course, changed in its’ nature over recent years and, with the brothers becoming involved with the club since 2013, they have seen many of those changes. When asked how he started out with the Knights, Will told Get ’em Onside “I was at York St. John university studying sports science and injury management and needed to do some work experience. I got in touch with the Knights who, at the time, had an under 20s reserve grade team and that was where I started.” At that time, James Ford was the head coach of that team whilst captaining the first team and the future first team coach was suitably impressed with Will’s work, asking him to remain with the club for the following season. “At the end of that season  he said to stick around and come back next year and that they would get another role for me. I’d always had an interest in coaching really and coached at New Earswick All Blacks and wanted to explore that avenue really.”
The younger George became involved with the club after Will and told that his slowly increasing role with the Minster city club originally came about by chance. “We’d watched all of the reserve games in 2015 and there was Will, Fordy and Mick Ramsden and that was it,” he explained. “Fordy asked me if I wanted to come on the bus and help out really – I thought it’d be just for a couple of weeks and it’s turned into a few years!” After gaining his grade three qualification in professional cooking, George works as a chef in one of York’s hotels and that skill has also benefited the Knights. “I started cooking for them last season. I started off doing some different pasta dishes in pre-season and one of the lads said why don’t I start cooking for them after training and that they’d pay. That’s where the idea came from really.” While being the Knights’ self-appointed head chef, George is also the regular kicking tee runner for the team and, as a result, has spent more time with Connor Robinson than anyone else. With Robinson breaking York records this season with his goalkicking and points scoring, the younger Leatt has been on the pitch more than his fair share and revealed that he is keen to ensure the team’s star kicker doesn’t get carried away or distracted. Joking that the former Halifax half back would be sick of the sight of his tee-runner, George beamed at how well Robinson has done this season. “He’s been incredible, breaking Danny Brough’s records just shows how good he has been,” he explained. “When I went on with the tee during the Whitehaven game, I think it was a penalty in the second half and Adam Robinson [on the touchline] told me this was for the record. I ran on smiling and I didn’t want to tell him. I wanted him to focus on the kick but he said “is this the one?” Admitting that he didn’t want to answer, it was only after Robinson had nailed the kick that George told him that he had become the record-breaker, no doubt a special moment for the player. “I was buzzing for him really,” he shared. “I think he fell out of love with the game a bit in 2017 before coming to York having not played that much so it’s great to see him enjoying his rugby with us.”
Working for their local rugby club is something which many fans would love to do and that is something the Leatts do. “It’s great,” the pair beamed. Throughout their time with the club, they have seen it progress and no time more so than since John Flatman took control. A sense of positivity and optimism now surrounds the Knights like never before and riding the crest of that wave is very much paramount for those involved. “There’s always an exciting period when somebody new comes to a club or an organisation,” Will explained. “I think Jon and his team have done really well is keep that positive vibe going and obviously the team winning as much as we have is helping that. It’s great at the moment, a lot of the stuff that’s out there in the media and the work people like Adam Prentis do with the foundation is helping to change the opinion of the club.” Indeed, the work of the club’s foundation was recognised at the recent award ceremony when they won foundation of the year. When the club first came into life in 2003, the Knights were keen to connect with the youth of the city and free tickets were handed out regularly in schools to introduce the youngsters to the sport. However, when George – now 21 – was at primary school, that wasn’t as prominent. “When I was at school  the people who came in sometimes weren’t as passionate as they could be but now the kids all seem to be loving it. That’s something that’s changed in the last couple of years.”
Ford, who recently signed a deal to become the first full time head coach in Knights history, is one of the highest-rated coaches outside of Super League and it is clear that the former Wakefield College tutor is big on pushing his players and staff to be the best they can be, something the pair agreed with. George reasoned that “I think people sign with York because they want to play and they want to get better. If you just want the money, you go elsewhere.” Furthermore, he added that the experienced pros who complement the youth in the squad ensure that the standards Ford demands are enforced. “Not only do the experienced lads train and play well but they help to uphold the standards at training,” he explained. “It doesn’t always need to come from the coaches if players can keep them high and, when someone like Ben Cockayne is telling you to pick it up, you know you need to listen. All of the players, especially the younger ones, are all really keen to be the best they can be. Joe Batchelor, Connor Robinson, Brad Hey… they always push themselves,” adding that that attitude makes the team a great one to be around. Will, more involved with tactical discussions and training than his brother, explained how Ford pushes him to improve as a coach. “Ever since I met him he’s been keen to help me develop. Now, we have a fantastic relationship and a great amount of trust. He’s always got time for people and whatever I ask him he’s willing to help me learn. He keeps adding things to my role to help me develop.”
Having secured promotion to the Championship, 2019 promises to be a hugely exciting year for the Knights as they not only return to the second tier but also finally move into their long-planned new home – one that will only be the distance of a lengthy Joe Batchelor try from the Leatt’s home. “It should be brilliant,” the pair agreed, Will adding that “it makes the club that bit more professional with having the stadium to go with the training facilities we have. When we go to Doncaster, we know how nice a stadium and how good a pitch it is to play on and to have that sort of facility every other week as our home ground will be great.” Before that, the pair have some down time in the off-season after, for Will, discussions regarding recruitment and how to approach 2019 while George will be looking at new recipes for post-training meals – while also possibly looking into starting his own cooking business.
What is clear from talking in depth to the pair is that their enthusiasm for the club is tangible. It’s an enthusiasm which oozes out of anybody connected to the club right now and, after a reasonable while where the fans of York rugby league didn’t have too much to be optimistic about, that is a great place for them to be.
York City Knights are currently sitting top of the Betfred League One table ahead of their huge clash at Derwent Park against Workington Town this afternoon. Defeat could see them lose top spot while a victory would make them favourites for automatic promotion. Nevertheless, whether the team go up automatically or not, it has been an impressive season for York, a club who were on the brink of folding in late 2016. Such has been the turnaround in the Minster city team’s fortunes, the club were able to bring in former NRL player Joel Edwards who joined the club after leaving French team Limoux. The 30-year-old has now settled in at York and has made a handful of appearances for James Ford’s team and he told Get ’em Onside that he is very happy in the city.
“York is a great place to live so we [his wife and himself] consider ourselves quite lucky,” he revealed. “Outside of the rugby we’ve been doing some touristy stuff in England – it’s been a good summer here so far so it’s been great exploring.” A highly rated team on and off the field, Edwards also praised the setup he has joined. “The club and community have been very welcoming so it’s been an easy transition.” The feel-good atmosphere that has been cultivated recently at the club no doubt played a part in enticing a player of Edwards’ quality and experience to the club. “I am really enjoying playing football here. They have a good group of boys at the club. There is a lot of talent in the team and it is great to be apart of,” he added.
With over a hundred first grade games under his belt in Australia with Newcastle Knights, Canberra Raiders and Wests Tigers, the New South Wales born forward has played rugby league at an elite level but still sees quality in League One and even suggests that an element of northern hemisphere rugby league should be used Down Under to further grow the game. “We have had some tough games. I really enjoyed watching the Bradford game from the stands. It was a high quality game and you can see teams that are building each week,” he explained. “I think the promotion and relegation system is great in the UK. It keeps competition and adds a different element to the table,” he added, continuing that “the Challenge Cup provides a lot of opportunity for teams and I think the NRL could really benefit from growing the game over there in the same way.”
Edwards’ career trajectory is certainly an interesting one as. Having departed the NRL at the age of 29, he made the unlikely step from Australia to join Limoux Grizzlies in the Elite One Competition. “It was definitely a left field move,” he acknowledged, “but one of best decisions personally and professionally I made for my wife Kate and I. I have been very lucky to play in the NRL for as long as I did unfortunately, I had a couple of injuries which set me back in my career since 2015. At the end of 2017, I had to have another surgery in the off season which took me out for 4 months. During this time there were also a lot of players off contract, pay disputes, a new Collective Bargaining Agreement as well as the World Cup. Negotiations got delayed heavily and clubs were over the salary cap. A lot of these factors caused movement of players to England which took up quota spots.” Fearing that his release from Wests Tigers could be the end of his professional career, a move back to a local league team in Newcastle – his hometown – was followed by a call from the French club, a move Edwards enjoyed greatly. “I was painting our house with Kate to move into and we got the call from Limoux. It was a great move and we both enjoyed our time in France. Limoux was a great club and community to be apart of,” he said. “Being in France and now England has reinvigorated my passion for the game. I hope to continue to build on my season and play professionally for a few more years.”
Clearly a capable player who has already broken his try scoring duck with the Knights, Edwards is one of the latest parts of Ford’s impressive Knights team and, having signed a deal until the end of the season, will no doubt be of interest to York’s helmsman going forward. Of his new head coach, the Australian was glowing in his praise. “I highly rate Fordy as a coach, he very precise and has clear expectations. His style of football is very complimentary to the way I play and he is well supported by the coaching staff at the club,” he acknowledged. A man who was at the Knights as both a player and a coach before current owner John Flatman arrived at the club, Ford has a relationship with the city and club which perhaps other head coaches may not have, something Edwards noted. “He has a strong rapport and respect amongst the playing group, that is evident each week when the team takes the pitch.” Indeed, the support of Flatman has enabled the former centre to build a squad with varying levels of experience, something Edwards thinks should be great for the club in the future. “It’s important for the club to continue to move forward and progress in their promotion and future. Blokes like Tim Spears, Ben Cockayne & Graham Horne are invaluable with their experiences both on and off the field,” he imparted. “They bring the best out in the playing group and help Fordy guide the younger players. Players like Matt Chilton and Ronan Dixon are extremely talented and with those blokes around them will just take their game to the next level. There is just so much talent in the Knights squad. Fordy is just one of those coaches you want to turn up and give your best performance every week for,” the Australian forward added.
York will certainly require one of their best performances of the season this afternoon if they are to leave Cumbria, historically tough territory for the Knights, with the two points from Workington to strengthen their grasp on top spot. “As a team we are approaching this week the same as our previous games,” he expressed. “We will be focusing on what we can control and our game plan. Workington are a quality side, they beat Bradford last weekend so they will be ready to play and confident. We have trained well this week and for me I prepare the same each week. This is just another game in our campaign for promotion, we need to approach it like that and focus on the process and not the outcome.”
The match is certain to be a gripping affair and, such is the importance and magnitude of the contest, it will be streamed live on the OuRLeague platforms. All eyes, as a result, will be on Derwent Park and Edwards will be hoping that his experience and ability will be able to play a big part in ensuring the two points join the team on the coach back to the Minster City.