'This sport is definitely going to take off soon'
Ireland hopeful Matty Hadden feels World Cup clash in Limerick can capture public imagination
It's been a whirlwind couple of years for Matty Hadden. Two years ago the Belfast-born 23-year-old was playing rugby union for Malone in the All-Ireland League. Now he is preparing to represent Ireland at the rugby league World Cup.
It is fair to say that it isn't the most prominent sport in this country, but when Limerick put forward a strong case to host Ireland's third pool game, the signs of the game's growth were clear.
Ireland will play Australia at Thomond Park on November 9 and they will spend a week at training camp in the city prior to the game. Hadden and his team-mates are fully aware of Limerick's proud rugby traditions.
"I went to watch Ulster in Thomond Park when they beat Munster in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup a couple of seasons ago. It's a great stadium.
"I've always kept an eye on Munster. They've got great fans and I know how passionate Limerick people are about their rugby. It's going to be very special."
Hadden began playing rugby league just 18 months ago when he joined Strangford Sharks. He admits that he only played a handful of rugby league games, because it was Malone's off season, but, once he got a taste for the game, he never looked back.
The following year, Hadden linked up with Antrim Eels and it was from here that his career has blossomed. His performances in the domestic league didn't go unnoticed and he was soon chosen to represent Ireland 'A' and the Ireland Students side.
Last year he took up a contract with Oxford and has since been rewarded for his stellar season with a year's extension.
"Getting a move to England was very important for me. I was playing union in the All-Ireland League, but I felt I wanted a bit more from my rugby, so I opted for a different experience.
"I was offered another season at Oxford and I'm delighted about that. There's a couple of other Irish lads there as well so, hopefully, we can all develop together."
There are currently 20 clubs playing rugby league in Ireland with a prestigious academy also in place in Limerick. Hadden is adamant that the sport is on the verge of taking off in this country and maintains that the pool game on home soil is vital for its growth.
"I think a lot of rugby union players would enjoy league more, but they just haven't discovered it yet. The game is still at a development stage in Ireland, but it's definitely going to take off soon.
"My mates that play union would love to play league, but it's difficult at the moment because of the lack of options.
"I know there'll be a really good crowd in Limerick and I think they'll like what they see. Australia are the best side in the world and they have some top players. Hopefully, the crowd will get behind us and will get more into the sport."
Ireland open their World Cup campaign against Fiji this evening and will follow that up with a clash against hosts England before the game against Australia.
With so little attention on rugby league, Hadden says that, compared to the union side, there is a sense of freedom surrounding the squad.
"The union national team and provinces are always under pressure to perform. They have a long history of success, especially teams like Leinster and Munster – it's almost expected that they win the Heineken Cup.
"If the national team makes the quarter-finals of a World Cup, it's taken for granted because it's expected."
Hadden was left of out Mark Aston's original 24-man squad and was called up as a late replacement for the experienced Simon Grix.
"When the squad was named I wasn't disappointed. I wasn't expecting to be in it, because I'm still very new to the game. When I found out I was in, it was a big shock. I got the call last Friday and was straight into camp the next day so it was a pretty quick turnaround."
Hadden is the sole Irish-born and raised player included in the Wolfhounds squad, but he rejects the notion that this is an issue for the players and how they have bonded.
"We have players who have played at the very highest level in the Super League and the NRL, but they all take time out to give others advice and help in training. There's no pecking order. The camp is in a good place.
"A lot of the guys have Irish mothers, fathers and grandparents. Plenty of people have left Ireland, but they still hold their Irish roots. You look at America and how many people over there are still proud to call themselves Irish. The same goes for Australia and England.
"There's strong Irish communities all over the world. Just because you're not living in Ireland doesn't mean you're not Irish."
Hadden has previously won two Irish caps and admits that he is still coming to terms with being surrounded by a full-time professional environment.
The Wolfhounds are under no illusion as top the task that faces them in advancing from a tough pool. But they are drawing inspiration from the 2008 side, who reached the quarter-finals against all the odds.
"It's a tough group, but we're confident with the team we've got. It's very strong. We're definitely capable of progressing out of the group."
Rugby League Ireland hopes to enter a team into the Super League within the next five years. Like any league player, Hadden's ultimate goal is to play at that top level.
"I'm not sure about having an Irish Super League team in my time, but I definitely think that having a Championship or Championship One team in the next three or four years is a realistic goal.
"When I retire from playing, I want to come back home and help develop the game in Ireland. People in Ireland need to be enjoying the game from a young age."
The game in Limerick will give a good indication of how far rugby league has progressed in Ireland since the first club side was founded back in 1989.
Ireland have reached the quarter-finals in each of their previous two World Cup appearances. Another successful campaign would go a long way for the game's development.
IRELAND'S GROUP A FIXTURES
Fiji v Ireland, Rochdale, 8.0
England v Ireland, Huddersfield, 2.30
Saturday, Nov 9
Ireland v Australia, Thomond Park, 8.0