Amid all the off-field intrigue it should not be forgotten that Gateshead Thunder have made a winning start to the rugby league season, new head coach Stanley Gene billing them as a “sleeping giant” of of the game.
The Papua New Guinean icon is combining his new role with a day job leading the academy of Super League side Hull Kingston Rovers, and kicked off his tenure with a 47-28 home win over Oxford on Sunday.
Talk of a takeover by Newcastle Falcons and a move to Kingston Park may have dominated the build-up, but for Gene such distractions could not affect their focus as they aim to kick on in the third tier of English rugby league.
“I am pretty humbled and excited to be starting, and I truly believe Gateshead is one of the sleeping giants of rugby league,” said Gene, the iconic stand-off who spent the majority of his professional career at Hull, Bradford and Hull KR.
“The town needs a good rugby league team, and that is why I have chosen to come here.”
Fleetingly part of Gateshead’s 1999 Super League adventure Gene never actually pulled on the Thunder shirt as a player, explaining: “I lived in Washington for two months and was getting ready for the season, then came the news that Thunder had to move back down to Hull due to the two clubs merging.
“But I have been here as an opposition player when there have been 6,000 or so supporters in the stadium supporting rugby league, and the thing for us is to produce a team that can play good enough football for people to want to come down and watch.
“There are better things to come, and with the size of Newcastle and Gateshead combined we have a bigger city here much than Hull. Hopefully they can get on board, and help us grow into a big club.”
A run of three bottom-of-the-league finishes was broken last season when Kevin Neighbour steered Thunder to third-bottom in the division, Gene bringing Super League expertise as well as a handful of talented youngsters from his parent club.
“I feel I can learn more not just on the coaching side up here, but in terms of everything that goes around it,” said Gene, who admitted he is still getting to grips with the culture shock of working at semi-pro level.
“That can mean just finding training venues and organising games, but it is all good experience and something a bit different from the full-time environment I have at Hull KR. When you are at a professional club you set a time for training and you know every single person will be there on the dot, but up here guys have jobs, university and kids to consider, so just fitting around that has been one of the challenges.
“You don’t always get the preparation time you want, but the players have been brilliant and they train really hard. When I came I told the players I was here for a reason – to learn as a coach and to become a good coach.
“I want to take my coaching career to another level, and when guys have signed for the club they know they are here with the intention of improving as players. The lads want to change, and they can’t just take their money and go out on a social. As a result they will learn more and in some cases put themselves in the shop window.”
Making no bones about this season’s target, he said: “I just want the players to give 100%. In my career I was always a winner even in games where my team lost, because I gave absolutely everything.
“We have spoken about our goals for the season, and we want to get into the promotion play-offs. After we do that we will sit down and set our goals again, but there is a real buzz about the squad and we have made a number of positive changes.
“The biggest thing now for us is to develop the base and work with local schools and junior clubs, spreading the word about Gateshead Thunder.
“It is a great club, and when people watch rugby league they will realise it is a proper contact sport. I am sure they will love it. The guys want to learn, to be challenged and to make people proud.
“A lot of people have worked extremely hard through some pretty tough times to keep the club going, and hopefully now we can progress with getting promoted this year.”