New signings in the close season are always a hot topic in any sport, not just rugby league, and it looks like one of the major talking points ahead of the 2015 campaign has arrived early, up in the North East.
Gateshead’s off-season strengthening has caught the attention of rugby league fans, with Papua New Guinea stars Garry Lo, Mark Mexico, Jason Tali and Charlie Wabo joining the ranks recently. With an impressive combined pedigree, as PNG internationals, their signatures certainly make the Thunder a side more than capable of promotion during the 2015 season.
A good time, you would think then, of checking their odds for the coming year – including an outside sniff at the Challenge Cup. You can click here to visit 32red.com, check the current market and back them for a tilt before their odds shorten. And it’s probably one of the best places to visit too, with some other bookies not even offering an outright price on Gateshead yet!
As for the Thunder’s latest additions, and it’s not just in Britain that this development has got people talking. A few eyebrows over in the Pacific have been raised due to the signings’ step down into tier-three rugby with the Kingstone Championship 1 side. Indeed, Papua New Guinea’s sports minister, Justin Tkatchenko, went as far as to claim that Lo could be damaging his fledgling career by making the move. Lo, 21, enjoyed a prolific campaign last time out for the PNG Hunters, finishing as the leading try scorer in the Queensland Cup and earning the title as Carbine Club Rookie of the year for his efforts.
Those achievements led to a host of top NRL and Super League sides looking to capture the starlet on their books but, despite their best efforts, Lo decided to join his countrymen on Tyneside, with the lure of working alongside a national icon playing a key role in all four men’s decisions.
Their new boss, Stanley Gene, featured in three world cups for his country – notching up the national record for appearances on the way – so it’s no surprise to hear from Wabo that Gene is regarded as a god back home. And perhaps it’s this reason that none of the new recruits seem to consider joining Gene to play in the lower tiers of British rugby as a move in the wrong direction for their careers, either.
Previously, Lo and Tali have never played domestically outside of their home nation, while Mexico had been plying his trade in Australia for the Cronulla Sharks. Wabo is the only one to have been on the books on these shores before (for Hunslet) but all four state that this move provides them with an ideal opportunity to play rugby together at a high standard and achieve great things for the only professional league side in the North East.
Thanks to the access the team have to Newcastle Falcon’s resources – among the best in the country – and, of course, the fact that they will be playing their home games at Kingston Park next season, the chances of them achieving that ambition are only improved. This luxury isn’t lost on the players, either, with Wabo pointing out that the training and playing facilities, usually the preserve of top NRL and Super League sides, gives him and his teammates an opportunity to be part of Gateshead Thunder’s rise right from the beginning.
This enthusiasm has been present in every interview the PNG four have given since their arrival in England and, as they talk more, it’s clear that there’s another – more personal – factor that has seen them travel half-way around the world to team up.
Rugby League is the national sport of Papua New Guinea and its national stars’ achievements are a source of inspiration for the whole region. This group says that whether it’s during or after school, every kid in PNG just loves to run around with a rugby ball under their arm. These guys know that succeeding to turn Gateshead into a Super League side will not only encourage youngsters to continue playing the sport but also persuade other countrymen to join them in British rugby.
Gene has been said to be looking to build ‘Papua New Gateshead’ and, although those aims might not be as sweeping as suggested, he is admittedly keen to use his time as Thunder’s boss to give top PNG talent a chance in England to improve their game. And with language barriers an occasional hurdle for foreign players to clear, the fact that Lo, Wabo, Mexico and Tali have made the move together will surely help to accelerate this group’s cohesion and understanding of each other’s game on the field.
So, what does Gene make of his initial crop’s abilities? Well, he’s understandably delighted to have landed their contracts in the first instance and expects their strength, speed and power to have a major impact on the league almost immediately. Oh, and he also agrees with Tkatchenko that Lo can become a major player in the Super League some day, though he’s hoping he’ll do so in the purple of Gateshead – and in the not-so-distant future, too.