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Callum Cockburn
Gateshead Thunder have a new Head Coach, rugby league legend Stanley Gene. Living North spoke to him about his new role and tried to solve a long-running mystery
‘I lived in the sticks, in a straw hut, then I came to England. I used to drink water from a creek so coming here, living in a house with a toilet and kitchen, to this day it’s still a privilege and an honour’
Lee Fewlass

Stanley Gene’s Wikipedia page makes for an interesting read. There’s an entire section dedicated to the subject of his age which for years has been shrouded in mystery: ‘Gene was born in Papua New Guinea in either 1962 or 1970’ it reads. It goes on to say that following the 2008 Rugby League World Cup the Papua New Guinea Parliament set about researching Stanley’s age as a matter of national importance. The reliability of the information on Stanley’s page starts to crumble as you read on: ‘He is believed to have been one of the passengers on Noah’s Ark. It has also been rumored that Gene was even a WWII veteran having fought along the Kokoda Trail during the Japanese invasion of Papua New Guinea in 1942.’ Joking aside, how old is this guy?

‘I know how old I am,’ Stanley explains. ‘I wasn’t born in a cave, I was born in a hospital, it’s something I have a laugh about. When I was playing it gave me a buzz to prove people wrong about how old I am.’ He blames Sky Sports commentator Mike Stephenson for the age rumours. Stephenson kept pointing out that Stanley was getting better and better in his thirties when most other players’ performances start to decline, raising the question of his age. ‘Every year I was proving them wrong, I saw it as a challenge. I’m a winner, when I get on the field I don’t care how old I am or how young my opponent is.’ Living North does ask how old he is, but he dodges the question, just like he used to dodge opponents on the pitch.

What we do know is that his career took off in 1995 after an impressive showing for Papua New Guinea during that year’s World Cup in England. He remained in the country after the tournament finished and has been here ever since, enjoying spells at clubs including Hull KR, Gateshead Thunder (briefly, though more on that later), Huddersfield Giants and Bradford Bulls. He’s considered a hero in his home country and a cult Super League player in England. ‘It’s still a dream to me. I lived in the sticks, in a straw hut, then I came to England. I used to drink water from a creek so coming here, living in a house with a toilet and kitchen, to this day it’s still a privilege and an honour.’ 

Stanley officially called time on his playing career after playing for Halifax, in the league below Super League, during the 2010 season. He moved into coaching, first with the Papua New Guinea national team then with his old club Hull KR, for whom he played over 170 times. ‘As a player you think you know everything, but coaching is a different environment altogether. It opened my eyes. There’s much more to the game than just playing. I’ve been enjoying it and I’m working all the hours to try and improve.’ He’s not kidding, this season as well as working as Head Coach at Gateshead Thunder in the third tier of English rugby league, Stanley is also Assistant First Team Coach at Super League side Hull KR. 

The dual role has meant he’s become extremely familiar with the A1. ‘I didn’t realise how far Gateshead is from Hull!’ He laughs. A typical week for Stanley is Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 4pm, working with Hull KR’s first team and academy players. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings he travels to Gateshead to take training. ‘I don’t get home until about 1am. I’ve got a wife and two boys, so it’s pretty tough but you sacrifice to hopefully better yourself and become a better coach.’ On Saturdays Stanley is back in the North East to take training again in Gateshead, when Gateshead’s semi-professional players are joined by professionals from Hull KR’s academy and those on the fringes of the Super League side’s first team. The clubs have linked with the aim to provide selected Hull KR players with valuable match practice and help raise the standards of Gateshead Thunder. The hope is that the club can challenge for promotion to the Championship, the league below Super League.

‘I took the job because Gateshead is a club that’s sleeping at the moment. If we can get it right up here there’s no bigger team. The facilities are second to none, everything is there, we just need a good team that can start winning.’ Gateshead were granted a Super League franchise in 1999 and despite early season problems attracting fans, the club finished in a very respectable sixth (just two points outside the playoffs). They managed to get the average attendance up to just under 4,000 but off the field things weren’t going so well. Gateshead’s current Managing Director Keith Christie explains, ‘There are a few different versions of events. The version I’ve heard from a few reliable sources is that the amount of money it cost to run the squad was too much, the investors were offered an opportunity to make their money back, and they sold the franchise to Hull FC.’ They merged on 15th November 1999 and the entire Gateshead outfit was forced to relocate to Yorkshire. Interestingly, the week before the merger was confirmed Gateshead had made a new signing, Stanley Gene.

‘I was the only player who signed for Gateshead and never played,’ laughs Stanley. ‘The club merged with Hull FC and I had to move back to Yorkshire with them.’ In an interesting twist Stanley had just come from Hull FC’s bitter rivals Hull KR and prior to leaving had publicly stated that he would never play for Hull FC because of the rivalry. Following the merger he was now an FC player. ‘I got a lot of stick from the supporters, but that’s another story.’

Now Stanley’s back in Gateshead and leading a push to bring back high-quality rugby league to the region. ‘We’ve got to be realistic and cut our cloth accordingly,’ explains Keith. ‘The rugby hasn’t been attractive to watch over the last few years so now it’s about making sure we put a product in place that has a value in the North East rugby league scene. There’s a lot of rugby league fans here. I’ve seen the Sky viewing figures for the North East and there’s a lot of people watching Super League from this region.’

Keith has already noticed an improvement in the current playing squad since Stanley’s arrival. Stanley himself is sensing a change after a promising pre-season. ‘When I first came up and we started training I thought it would be a pretty hard job, but the players are all buying into the system and they’re all learners.’ Led by captain Jason Payne, the squad fits training and matches around day jobs. Two leagues below the professional Super League, Stanley admits the gap is huge. ‘Super League is so fast, you can see the difference but you just can’t compare the two.’ 

The part-timers make up the difference through grit and determination. Stanley points to the side’s hooker, Ricky Hough as an example. ‘The kid played with a broken hand in pre-season. I thought he broke it in the game but he’d broken it at work and never told me. He just really wanted to play. He played 50 to 60 minutes with it then went to hospital and came back with a pot on his hand for six weeks – he was my man of the match!’

Stanley was renowned for his determination on the pitch and perhaps it’s starting to rub off on his players. ‘Even if we’re losing by 60 points you have to be the best player out there, that’s what I tell the players – “I don’t care if you lose, but if you go out and give everything you’ve got, I’ll be satisfied.” I want these guys to change, I want to help them better themselves as players and people. I beg people to come and watch this team. Rugby league is one of the greatest contact sports. Come and watch because the North East deserves a very good rugby team.’

Hopefully Stanley’s passion will rub off on the public too and people will start coming through the turnstiles of Gateshead International Stadium, regardless of age.

Gateshead Thunder’s 2014 season kicks off on Sunday 9th March against Oxford RLFC at 3pm, Gateshead International Stadium www.thunderrugby.com

Published in: April 2014

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