Having been a Saturday afternoon TV Rugby League fan I experienced my first live game at the Valley in 1996 when London Broncos played St Helens. The match was decided by a controversial try by Apollo Perelini – St Helens won by 4 points with the final score being Broncos 28 St Helens 32. An exciting game, I was hooked! This was the first year of Summer Rugby and Superleague, London Broncos finished 4th that year. And I became a season ticket holder and rugby league fan. It took me a few more years to find London Skolars, the team that are my nearest rugby club of either code.
The New River Stadium is a great place to watch the game, and feels like a home from home. Back in 1996 the Broncos team had more than a few Australians who’d become favourites, captained by Terry Matterson, who was carded as Perelini scored, he was joined by Tony Rea, Peter Gill and Tulsen Tullett amongst others. Things have changed in London in that time and more than a few home grown players have come through both Skolars and Broncos. One such is a real favourite of mine, Iliess Macani, it was great to get the opportunity to talk to him about his life in rugby league.
We started at the beginning – how did a lad at school in Haringey end up with a Rugby League contract? Look no further than the work London Skolars do in the community. Iless was playing football and in fact played for QPR at U15’s and U17’s, as well as using the speed we’d see on a rugby league pitch, in Athletics. He went to a tournament at New River with his school team, which they won, he impressed and James Massara invited Illiess to train at the club and the rest is history. At 16 he had a contract with the Skolars, but on the insistence of his very sensible Mum he carried on with his schooling completing both GCSE’s and A Levels.
Iliess went on an U19’s trial at London Broncos, a successful trial, he played in the Reserves before moving into the first team. His debut in Superleague came at St Helens and he announced his arrival with a try. Unlike Skolars the Broncos have moved grounds on more than a few occasions, that led to no fewer than 5 moved for Iliess between 2013 and 2015.
2015 was his best season with the Broncos, he played 28 times, scoring 12 times, he was in the middle of a 2 year contract and the Number 5 shirt became his for the 2016 season. During these years, he like several other players over the years had a dual contract with his Junior Club, London Skolars. He played 7 times and scored 4 tries. From a fans perspective, Iliess at full speed with ball in hand is a sight to behold! Experiencing the dual registration scenario will, Iliess feels prove to be invaluable in his new role as Assistant Coach at Skolars, more of that later.
From Broncos he headed to Bradford Bulls – in his own words that was both the best and worst time of his life. He experienced a long tried system and a great pre-season and bonded well with his new team mates. The Bulls had seen some torrid years and went into liquidation in January 2017. Iliess re-signed with the new set up but had several months without pay; it was a time he learnt a lot about himself. He played 25 games in 2017 for the Bulls, scoring 10 tries.
Next up was Sheffield Eagles, he played 17 games, but again made his was back to Skolars 5 times during the season, 2019 onwards and Iliess is all Skolars! His role at the club has expanded for this season to join Jermaine Coleman as Assistant Coach. The club are helping him complete his Level 2 Coaching Qualification this year and he has plans to move on to Level 3 next year. Iliess will still be doing his thing on the pitch and is joined by an exciting squad https://www.skolarsrl.com/teams/1st-team-squad/.
The 2019 season saw the club soar then drop back when some key loan players returned to Wigan, the hope for this season is for consistency while relying on the clubs own players. The first match happens on May 8th and we have to hope we can get back into that stand at the New River Stadium.
I had some questions prepared for Iliess and also had some from fellow fans
What was your earliest Rugby League Memory?
Sam Tompkins playing for WIgan in the 2010 Grand Final – Iliess had been advised to keep an eye on him, and he’s a player who rarely disappoints.
Who’s been the most influential person in your Rugby League career?
Joe Mbu – an absolute gent of the game, Joe played for both London clubs and coached at Skolars for 5 years.
What was your Best Moment in Rugby League?
A whole season for Iliess on this one, his last year at London Broncos in 2015, they had a great run and proved to be really resilient.
What was your worst moment in Rugby League?
The first game in Cumbria at Whitehaven, the warn up started with a meting with a huge puddle. I can recall a Friday night World Cup match between Scotland and The Kiwis that ended in a surprising draw, the Kiwis were not amused with the conditions, which included horizontal rain!
What’s the one quality or asset that’s going to make us contenders this season? (Mark Hawkes)
Resilience, grinding games out, having a dogged attitude.
How can we connect with London’s gym culture? (Paul Rolfe)
Iliess sees tying a gym goer in with the physical contact needed in the game as a challenge. But he sees the best way to connect is to get the players out into the community.
How long does it take for a natural athlete to develop enough skill to be a first team Rugby League player? And who’s developing them to that level in London? (Kev Flanagan)
This did cause Iless to hesitate as Kev is a colleague and probably the answer to the second part of the question. As far as the first part, clearly everyone is different and hand/eye co-ordination is key, a ball park figure would be 3 years. We had spoken about the fact that realistically players from London tend to peak later in their careers, as they aren’t generally toddling round with a rugby league ball in hand, unlike many players in the heartlands.
I’m looking forward to watching some live rugby league this summer, then seeing how far Iliess can go in his coaching career. The world is his oyster!