|Venue: Ruskin Drive, St Helens Date: Saturday, 13 January Kick-off: 14:30 GMT Coverage: Live scores on the BBC Sport website|
The Galway Tribesmen will have to undertake a lengthy coach trip and a late night ferry crossing ahead of their Challenge Cup first-round tie against Pilkington Recs this weekend.
But that will be nothing compared to the epic journey that the Irish club has already been on in just 10 years of existence.
The Tribesmen will be huge underdogs when they come up against one of the most famous names in amateur rugby league. But their very existence is testament to two men’s determination to spread the game to the outpost of the west coast of Ireland.
“It’s simply an honour and a privilege to be invited to play in the Challenge Cup,” said club secretary and founder Thomas Hinds, ahead of his club’s first appearance in the competition.
Growing the sport across the Irish Sea
The son of an Irish mum and dad, Hinds was born and raised in Leeds, playing rugby league for his college and various clubs around Yorkshire as he grew up.
Twenty years ago he moved to Dublin, before relocating to Galway. Teaming up with fellow rugby league nut Jason Craughwell, the pair decided to create a new team in an area that knew very little about the game.
“I moved over here about 20 years ago and played rugby league in Dublin, but then moved to the west and there wasn’t really any rugby league down here,” Hinds added.
“I badgered Jason to help me set the thing up. We were going round pubs in Galway looking for big guys who looked like they could play rugby and enlisting them to come and train with us.
“They were just random rugby-looking types in various bars and we got a team together.
“We were very inauspicious in the first year. Because there weren’t any teams in Connacht [the Irish province in which Galway is situated], we played in the Munster League.
“It was very foreboding, and we didn’t have much success and it was only in the second year that we secured our first win.”
But slowly the club began to go from strength to strength.
“There have been many people contributing, a number of collaborators over the years and we’ve just grown. It’s become more of a community club.” added Hinds, whose role as club secretary includes marking the pitch and taking dirty kits to the laundry.
Building a supporter base in union territory
They were invited into this year’s Challenge Cup after winning the All-Ireland Championship last year, coming out on top in Ireland’s 12-team domestic competition.
They can also lay claim to playing home matches in one of Europe’s most eye-catching settings, which has boosted their popularity and increased their fan base.
“The pitch we play on is a council pitch which is very picturesque. It overlooks the Galway Bay, so it’s a nice place to come to. We have people randomly passing the pitch on a matchday and stopping to watch us.
“We’ve also gathered quite a following online around the globe. On our Facebook page we have over 3,000 people that regularly check in with us, so it’s grown massively since 2012.
“And last year we had our first ever women’s team. Although it was a small competition they managed to get to the All-Ireland Final as well. We won the men’s All-Ireland Final, but the women unfortunately got beaten in their final.”
Bolstering Rugby League Ireland’s ambitions
Hinds is now also a board member of Rugby League Ireland. In the past there have been proposals to create an Irish club that could compete in Super League or one of the two professional leagues below.
But he says the current aim is to grow the game domestically in the country and also create a player pathway that would see more Irish-born players playing for the national team. They’ve introduced a two-tier representative set-up to promote that aim.
“We have a domestic national team, which they call the ‘Clubs 13’ team, who play against teams who are invited over, or who go over to England to play,” Hinds said.
“The next step up is to the seniors [the full Ireland squad].
“The seniors are mainly comprised of Super League or NRL players. The focus is to build pathways to get (domestic) players through to that senior team.
“Guys who’ve maybe missed the boat with rugby union or even other sports like gaelic football, there is a quick pathway for them to get into rugby league and to represent the domestic national team but also hopefully progress to the senior national team at World Cups and other tournaments.
“It’s not to going to happen this year, but for the next one in France there is maybe the potential for guys coming through the ranks to play in that World Cup.”
But in the meantime Hinds will be making sure the Galway team are well rested before embarking on their exhausting travels ahead of the cup tie. They are only due to arrive in St Helens – home of Pilkington Recs – at 2am on the day of the game.
“It could be worse,” he laughed. “I was looking at the teams in the draw and thinking if we’d got Jarrow Vikings that would have been quite a trek.
“We’re under no illusion that it’s probably going to be a difficult tie. They’re one of the most famous names in the amateur game, but it’ll be a fantastic occasion for the lads.
“They’re confident. I’m sure they all think they can win. We have to have that attitude. But it’s going to be tough, no doubt about that.
“But being in the Challenge Cup enhances our reputation. It’s a massive opportunity for Galway to showcase rugby league in Ireland to a wider audience.”