By STEVE MASCORD
LEGEND has it that when the Coogee Dolphins played a curtain-raiser to the United States-Australia Test in Philadelphia at the end of 2004, a drunken Kangaroo told members of the Sydney amateur team “you’re only here because of those guys that died in Bali”.
Indeed, the Remembrance Cup had been organised to mark the September 11 attacks in New York, in which members of the NY Knights rugby league team perished, and the Bali Bombing on October 12 2002 which cost the Dolphins six players.
The unkind assessment of the messy Australian player carried the implication that the Coogee boys were just in America on a jolly, benefiting from the poor fortune of their team-mates.
It was a comment that was ill-advised, to be kind.
For one of the Dolphons. Col Manners, the journey to the city where Rocky had been filmed changed his life.
He was so impressed with the Americans he saw taking up our game that he started taking three months off every year from his job with publishers Fairfax in Sydney and spending it all playing for – and coaching – the New York Knights.
“I was 30 with a bucketload of injuries so a shorter season in the ‘States and an opportunity to live three months a year in New York was too good to knock back,” he tells Rugby League World.
“Anyway, I did that for quite a few years back and forth and the keen-ness of the American guys to learn the game of rugby League off us foreign guys was really inspiring in some ways.
“It was like you would see in Hollywood movies: they would get down on one knee to listen to every word of what the coach or senior players had to say.
“They respected everyone and these were all very intelligent guys – bankers, stockbrokers etcetera so when they commit, they want to perfect it.”
Another thing you would see in a Hollywood movie is someone tossing in their security, friends and familiar surroundings to chase a dream. Col Manners did it to help others realise their dreams.
“So a few years ago I bit the bullet and quit my advertising job in Australia and headed to New York to find a job, working on the back of a removalist truck, as a bouncer at a bar, pulling beers…” he continues.
“…anything to get by before I landed my dream job working on Wall Street at Kodiak Capital, a private investment fund.”
When rugby league people talk about the American Dream, this is what they mean. Fit, keen young men, down on one knee listening to an Australian or an Englishman, keen to improve and impress.
It’s artificial turf, Russell Crowe, winter sunshine, sports bars, television, life on an epic scale
It’s what keeps us going back there, isn’t it? Even with split competitions, schemes and games that never come off and events that are never followed up on, we refuse to let go.
A World Cup appearance by the Tomahawks next year is evidence that 60 years of dancing with Uncle Sam has not been a waste of time.
October and November just passed were big months for the game in the US.
On October 27, an Hawaiian All Stars team hosted the Queensland Indigenous side put together by the Arthur Beetson Foundation. The game, at Kaiser High School, was somewhat marred by the fact that tsunami sirens sounded throughout.
This writer was there and the other remarkable aspect of the evening was that it seemed to be Queensland’s home game. Everyone involved in the Hawaiian team seemed to be playing, with no American officials there to co-ordinate the event and former Australia centre Tony Currie acting as ground announcer.
A lady from the local rugby union seemed to be the Queensland team’s local liason, organising food when the team – many of whom had never even been on a plane before – were stranded at the ground afterwards because of the tsunami.
AMNRL boss David Niu did not attend – which was probably later shown to be fortuituous when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the north-eastern United States. Local co-ordinator Kelly McGill played and finished with a fractured eye socket and broken nose.
But the tourists were unhappy with their hotel and moved. They hired a public address system for their cultural dancers because the one at the ground was antiquated. They spent more money than they intended to.
And the aborigines scored an easy 70-8 win, although the locals (including a couple of Queensland Cup players) kept coming all night.
Three weeks later came another event – one that received a good deal less publicity than the tsunami-affected Hawaii match (there were no tidal waves, no-one was hurt).
The Remembrance Cup was revived in Las Vegas on November 10, with five teams including the Coogee Dolphins taking part. Who was behind this? None other than Col Manners.
“(Kodiak) moved our office to Newport Beach, California, so I could no longer be involved with the New York Knights and the East Coast Rugby League,” he explained.
“I created this tournament due to the Coogee Dolphins 10th year anniversary of the Bali Bombings. I wanted them to have a good end of season trip with Rugby League involved.
“Then I met a Kiwi guy in California – Zane Hirtzel – who was playing Union but was a real leaguehead. We then started the California Condors and have recruited a lot of union players from other clubs. The entire team apart from Benny Lucas who played for Cronulla … has never played rugby league.
“Then came Paul O’Keefe an Aussie guy from Canada who runs a five-team competition in British Columbia has a rep team who he said would also like to play in Vegas. Then there was Utah Avalanche also.
“So anyway, I had five teams and I did not want to turn it into a sevens tournament as it would not benefit learning league for the Americans.
“So I decided to have all games played on the same day over five hours as 13 on 13 with 10-minute halves, field goals as conversions and as penalty goals to save time.”
Coogee retained the Remembrance Cup, beating Utah 14-4 in the final. Manners had introduced new teams to rugby league, invented a new abbreviated form of the game and honoured his fallen mates – all on one day.
But he’s not satisfied.
“I will be hosting this event as an annual event around the November 11 (Remembrance weekend),” he said. “I have a load of interest already from Australia, New Zealand, England and Jamaica, believe it or not. Arthur Little wants to bring a NSW Country rep team out as well, my mate wants to bring the NSW Police
“It is perfect timing for foreign teams to enjoy an end of season trip to Vegas and play a one day rugby league tournament.
“It is open to all American teams first, with Coogee Dolphins always being invited. Then once I know what numbers I can host, I will then open it up to international teams in January so they have 10 months to fund-raise
“I’m really excited about developing this tournament as there is nothing like it in the world and will really help rugby league in the US. Plus, Aussies, Kiwis and English League fans can have an excuse to go to Vegas and watch some good hard hitting park football.l
“The hardest issue I have which I will be sorting out is finding a fields to host an event. For every five teams, I will need another field to have simultaneous games going on.
“This event will also be a charity event annually. This year I have selected Hurricane Sandy relief as the charity. An old team mate at the NY Knights lost his family home in the Breezy Point community of Queens.
“You see what the Bulldogs and every other NRL team does for charities and I want to help build that into the league community that we are establishing out here on the West Coast of America.
“We are planning on have a rugby league competition next year in southern California. Southern California has the best rugby union clubs in the USA so there are plenty of athletes. Plus, southern California produces some of the best NFL players in the USA so there are a lot of ex-high school and ex-college American Football guys who are not attracted to union but could be attracted to a closer version in league … being six tackles (six downs), big hits, taking players on one on one.
“We cannot compete with Union, it is too big, too many teams but their 15s go from January to May and sevens go from May to July. So (from) August onwards, they don’t have anything. Our plan is to work with these strong union clubs and establish League 13’s into their calendar. There is no need in America to get into a League vs Union debate. We can both help each other with the two Rugby codes.
“After the Remembrance Cup, we are going to approach each and every union club in Southern California to add League 13’s to their calendar. We already have three big clubs, more should follow.
“I am working on sponsorship and would like to put up prize money as an extra incentive to start in the first year as well as a board seat to each inaugural club.”
Perhaps Thanksgiving is another American holiday rugby league should start observing – and the the people we’ll be giving thanks to are men like Col Manners.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD