After a season of struggle and transition, things are looking up for Gateshead Thunder as coach Dave Woods begins his first full season in charge.
AFTER training with the likes of Super League legends Jamie Lyon and Pat Richards at Australian top-flight side Parramatta Eels, Daniel Russell knows what makes a good rugby league player. And he is encouraged by what he has seen since moving to England to become Gateshead Thunder’s first new signing for the coming season.
The 24-year-old was looking for a new challenge after playing in the NRL so he jumped at the chance to play English rugby league with the National Two side. And he can’t wait for the new season to begin.
“I took my first training session with them and I was impressed with what I saw, it’s looking good,” said a player who was picked up as a 14-year-old by the Eels before moving to Penrith, where he first met Thunder coach Dave Woods.
“I’m hoping to play in the halves – I think it’s called stand-off over here – and the standard is high in the NRL so I’m hoping to bring some of that over here. There’s not a lot that doesn’t happen in games back home so I can cope with anything the opposition bring at me. Dave told me a little bit about the club’s history and how things went last year, but the impression is things are changing at Gateshead and this is a new start. I came over here because I wanted the experience of playing English rugby league, and Dave gave me the opportunity.
“I told my coach in Australia I wanted to go overseas, and I was even looking at moving to France at one stage. Then he told me about Dave’s offer and I jumped at it. I’ve played at the highest level in Australia and done everything I can, now I want a chance to make the grade in England. I’d love to play in the Super League eventually.”
And a player who is looking to achieve as much as possible in the game hasn’t even ruled out international honours – no matter which country he plays for.
“I’ve got Irish ancestry down the line somewhere and I’d love to play international football. I suppose it would depend on who came to the table first as to which team I played for,” he said. “But I’ve seen Great Britain against New Zealand and I think they’ve got a long way to go before they can match the Australians.”
For now Russell is waiting to make his first competitive start for Thunder, though he is also spending his time getting used to the English climate.
“I’m walking round in shorts and a t-shirt and people are giving me funny looks,” he added. “I’ve only ever seen snow once so it would be nice if it snowed while I was up here.”
Meanwhile, Thunder coach Woods has predicted bigger and better things for his side after a season of regeneration on and off the field.
The coach faced a difficult situation last season, having been asked to come in and build a side without a real pre-season and change the perception of the club and the game of rugby league across the North-East. And he is also delighted with off-the-field events and initiatives, bringing Thunder into the community at large, ranging from working with Gateshead Council to help promote anti-drugs campaigns to developing stronger ties with junior rugby league teams.
He said: “The club was late in getting its act together after the sudden departure of the old coach. After my appointment, I had to try and replace 14 or 15 players that had left the club.
“I started this task immediately and brought in some players from Australia and also from the UK. We had a lot of young players from the North-East and picked up a couple from the local university teams and amateur teams in the area to give them an opportunity. I must say that in some games we were fielding 13 local North-East players, a feat that no other club had done in the National League Two competition. This is a wonderful achievement for the club as it can have the effect of embracing the local community more.
“All the players improved their performances by the season’s end and in the back end of the competition we competed in every game and were in a position to win the majority of them, but being naive and not having some old heads hampered our play. Our playing budget was also quite small when you consider some of the sides we were up against and what they spent on players.
“Probably one of the most important things that we achieved was the setting up of our Under-18s academy team that is competing in the Halifax National Youth League competition.
“Currently there is nowhere for the boys to play in the North-East once the players reach 16, so therefore they go over to rugby union. Now that we have this academy team we have about eight players return to league from rugby union to play with us.
“I believe that with the players we have bought and the experience that the players now have under their belt, we will have a good season in 2008.”