Jamaican rugby league can overtake cricket’ – how the Reggae Warriors hope to inspire a nation

The World Cup postponement was a blow to Jamaica but their head coach Romeo Monteith is keen to look ahead, starting with tomorrow’s match against England Knights in Castleford.

A report by Elgan Alderman for the London Times.

Jamaica should have been making their Rugby League World Cup debut next week, against Ireland at Emerald Headingley. That was still the case as recently as three months ago, before organisers had to admit defeat after the withdrawals of Australia and New Zealand, postponing the tournament by 12 months.

The delay does have its benefits: there has been no rugby league played in Jamaica since the start of the pandemic, so hopefully by October 2022 domestic players will have shaken off two years of rust. There are, however, plenty of downsides, most of all the tiredness in Romeo Monteith’s voice. Monteith is a former English teacher, the Americas regional director of European Rugby League, and the national head coach. He is Jamaican rugby league.

While Australia can live with the decision to kick the can down the road, the ramifications for a passionate volunteer such as Monteith are huge: an extra year of paperwork and planning, delaying a line in the sand for the development of rugby league on the island; waking up at 3am at his base in Canada to speak to players in the UK before they go to work; and making sacrifices to keep the ship on course, “destructive to your personal life”, during a pandemic that has hit friends and family. For experienced players, it is an extra year of effort, hoping not to follow the fate of Danny Thomas, of Dewsbury Celtic in Yorkshire, who retired from the sport last month and will not feature in Jamaica’s World Cup bow.

The Times first spoke to Monteith at the start of this year, to hear about the part he played in establishing a new sport in Jamaica and getting them to a World Cup within 20 years. Catching up with him this week, the mood is subdued. He wishes the postponement, if it were to be made, had happened sooner in the year. “We had administrators in some countries that resigned from their jobs in anticipation of going to the World Cup,” he says. Jamaica hosted a three-day training camp for UK-based players in June, with costs they could have done without. Monteith hopes the joy will return when the World Cup is finally upon us, four years after qualification was secured with victories over Canada and the United States.

The postponement of the World Cup until next year had a big impact on Monteith

The postponement of the World Cup until next year had a big impact on Monteith

A 21-man UK-based squad — 11 of whom are drawn from Super League and the Championship — will be in action tomorrow night, against the second-string England Knights at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle in Castleford, and against Scotland in Featherstone next Sunday. It is not the expected occasion, but it is at least a return to the field for the Reggae Warriors.

Eighteen years ago, playing rugby league on the Caribbean island was merely a concept. After the 13-man version was mooted in 2003, three rugby union clubs — in addition to a newly set-up fourth — founded a domestic competition, initially a complement to union, and then a thriving sport in its own right before the pandemic put it on pause. The obstacles were plenty. “Our problem in Jamaica is we’re very traditional,” Monteith says. “People like to put resources where there is popularity.”

It is a hurdle rugby league was overcoming. No one knows if the trajectory will be as steep when the domestic game returns. “We’re in about a dozen high schools, three age groups, six colleges playing, I think we’re up to seven Division One teams and seven Division Two teams,” Monteith says. “It’s mostly based in the urban areas, Kingston and St Catherine, there’s a small outpost in St Elizabeth, which is about three hours outside Kingston.” For Monteith, the proudest moment came when the milestone of 1,000 active players was reached. “We got the girls playing [before Covid], three high schools,” he says.

Monteith’s interest had been piqued after he witnessed the skills of Dane Campbell, a half back with the Newcastle Knights in Australia’s NRL, in a game of tag at the University of West Indies. “Everything about how he approached the game of tag was, to me, more skilful and superior to anything I’d seen from a union player,” he says. “We started to pick his brain, email him all the time.”

Emerging nations set to feature in the World Cup such as Greece, Italy, Lebanon and Jamaica rely on their British and Australian diaspora to compete at the top level. Jamaica will have many UK-based heritage players in their squad in 12 months’ time but there will be a homegrown flavour too, a duality that is vital for Monteith.

For rugby league to become a prominent part of Jamaican sport, it needed a presence on the island. Monteith wanted a foundation, not a spectre; a squad that features Michael Lawrence, of Huddersfield Giants, and Jenson Morris, of Duhaney Park Red Sharks.

There are few players more steeped in Huddersfield than Lawrence. The 31-year-old is captain of his hometown, born and raised a Giant, with more than 300 appearances for his team. His parents were born in Jamaica; they met in high school after Lawrence’s grandparents had emigrated to Huddersfield, part of a Caribbean community that worked in the textile mills of the Heavy Woollen District.

Jamaica’s last match was against the Knights in Leeds two years ago. The city will be their home at the World Cup. “There’s a big Caribbean community in Leeds,” Lawrence told The Times this year. “The feeling I got playing for Jamaica was something I’ve never felt before, the sense of pride that I felt representing my grandparents and my parents, it was great. It sent shivers down the spine when singing the national anthem. I can’t wait to pull on the jersey and do it again.”

Jamaica’s Lawrence tackles England’s Joe Greenwood the last time the two sides met in October 2019

Jamaica’s Lawrence tackles England’s Joe Greenwood the last time the two sides met in October 2019

Alongside Lawrence in the 2019 squad were Khamisi McKain and Morris, two domestic players. Traditionally the national side is made up of British heritage players if they are playing in Europe — travel restrictions have guaranteed that this week — and of domestic players if in North America. The World Cup offers the country a chance to combine the two streams of talent on the largest stage. It has not always been easy. “You have to satisfy everybody’s needs,” Monteith says. “It’s a balancing act that takes a lot of negotiation.”

With established figures such as Chev Walker and Jason Robinson, the UK operations director of Jamaican Rugby League, helping to bring players in, the set-up is attracting talent: Dom Young, the 20-year-old back who this year made his debut for the Knights in NRL, is set to represent the country of his grandparents — all 6ft 7in of him.

Morris, nicknamed “Gas”, is studying forensic chemistry, living in Manchester parish. He took up rugby league at the University of Technology, Jamaica, in 2016 and quickly revealed himself as a bountiful source of tries. He is a scholar of the game, taking copious notes after sessions, working hard in the gym, watching videos of old State of Origin matches and learning from watching Cameron Smith and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.

The wing participates in Parish of Residence (PoR), Jamaica’s equivalent of State of Origin, running at under-14, under-16, under-19 and senior level. Monteith hoped to run PoR this year to no avail. “We really use PoR to build our own capabilities in terms of organising events, maybe having a look into the future of what semi-professional rugby league can be like in Jamaica,” he says.

“What Romeo is doing over there with players like Jenson and Khamisi is massive,” Lawrence said. “These players are going to be the Jamaican role models, they’re going to help and coach the players over there. The pool of talent is huge. The sport of rugby league is known in Jamaica now.”

Lawrence, too, can spread the game among those of Caribbean heritage on the islands and in the UK. “My role models growing up were people like Jason Robinson, Darren Fleary, people I could relate to and look up to and be inspired, people who looked like myself and who were from the same place as me, and made me believe I could achieve the things they achieved,” he said. “I’m hoping to take that mantle up by my actions, to hopefully inspire kids from the same communities and backgrounds as me to take up the game.”

Such is Monteith’s omnipresence that grassroots growth pleases him just as much as national victories. “In Jamaica, if we can average 5,000 players per annum, about 1,500 to 2,000 as seniors, I think that’s where we want to be to secure our future, getting the sport to go mainstream,” he says. “We are in my opinion just behind cricket and football in terms of teams and participants. I want us to be in that No 3 position and then I genuinely think we can have more league players than cricket players on the island.

“We don’t want to have a successful national team with little to no rugby league in Jamaica. If we want to have a women’s national team, I don’t want to have a women’s national team without women playing in Jamaica. Everything we do is about getting Jamaicans playing the sport in Jamaica.

“If we can inspire Jamaicans and West Indians in the UK to take up rugby league as well, because they can identify with the team, that would be brilliant as well. If our story can inspire a new generation, that’s a win-win for us.”

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