IT’S like something out of the movie Sliding Doors. Had Matthew Elliott not made a certain phone call in September 1991, we may not have any rugby league played in America at all.
“At St George, our end-of-season trip was to Hawaii and David Niu was not going,” the former Penrith coach and current Sydney Roosters assistant tells RLW.
“But someone pulled out. I thought of Niuy and asked him if he wanted to go. He said he had no money but lots of it was paid for so I told him he didn’t need to worry, he’d be OK.
“I’m not even sure what his passport situation was. He might have had to get one of those in a hurry too. Anyway, he went….”
And on the first day of the vacation, walking along the beach with team-mate Jeff Hardy while everyone else was sleeping off their hangovers, Niu met his wife Donna
He subsequently moved to Philadelphia, picked up a job as a teacher at a reform school and kickstarted a sport which was in terminal decline in America – rugby league.
“So yeah, you can basically thank me for it all,” Elliott laughs.
In 2007, Elliott helped his old Saints team-mate some more when he coached the United States to an unsuccessful World Cup qualification program.
Long before the dramas at Penrith this year, Elliott undertook to have another go and this October he’ll be in Philly, leading the Tomahawks’ bid for inclusion in the 2013 RLWC in the UK. This time his old mate needs him more than ever, with a rebel competition having been launched in the US this year.
“I’m helping because I know how hard Dave works,” says Elliott, who recently returned from a fact(and cocktail)-finding mission to Hawaii.
“People got it into their heads that he had started to make a lot of money out of this which was just not true. That’s what happened with the rebel comp.
“This company called Star Group got involved because they think the sport has potential, that’s all. We all think our sport has potential, we all think it should be bigger than it is.”
Elliott hasn’t committed to coach the Tomahawks in the World Cup, should they make it. That will depend on where he’s coaching at the time.
But he says the side which takes on Jamaica and South Africa between October 15 and 23 will be picked from both US competitions as well as outlying areas such as Hawaii, Utah and California. It could also include NRL’s Junior and Joseph Paulo because of their American Samoan heritage.
And here’s the main message Matthew wants to get across in this story: there are spots up for grabs for players reading this who have American heritage.
Hull KR’s Clint Newton, Northern Pride’s Mark Cantoni and Wakefield’s Charlie Leaeno are other likely inclusions. Elliott says players should not discount themselves because they play below NRL level.
“My message to player who have an American parent or grandparent is to get on the AMNRL website and contact David,” said Elliott.
“That’s anyone who has played at a reasonable level. Let us do the rest.”
The US has its best chance ever of qualifying for the World Cup this year. There are 12 automatic qualifiers, with the European and Atlantic zones each getting one place to take the total number of competing nations to 14.
So, the US only needs to win the tournament in Philadelphia to be on the plane to the UK. World Cup qualification will give Niu the necessary platform to launch the long-mooted national competition, his mate believes.
“Look, it’s a great model,” says Elliott. “A six week tournament, imports and coaches at each team that are payed decent money, the entire round played at the one venue – sort of like Nascar.
“A lot of the football players in America are not from affluent backgrounds and a decent wage would attract some fantastic players.
“Some of the athletes that come out of the NFL system there are just ridiculous. Like. 40,000 go into the draft and only 330 get picked.
“I’m not saying they’d beat the established countries but it would be a helluva opening 15 minutes.”
Elliott says he did nothing for a week after being told by Penrith football director Phil Gould his services were no longer required “and I went crazy”
“It was quite a unique situation for a while there,” he says. “I’m contracted to Sydney Roosters now and enjoying it, looking forward to next year
“Hawaii was good – as national coach it’s important to get out and meet people. Those people seemed to congregate in bar areas with brightly coloured drinks that had little umbrellas sticking out of them.
“So that’s where I had to go. These are the sacrifices you make for rugby league.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK