The Joe Mbu Interview

RFL journalist David Lawrenson recently came down to New River to talk to Joe Mbu about his life and how he got into Rugby League. Here is Joe’s story:

It’s a long way from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the north London home of the London Skolars Rugby League team but it’s been a fascinating journey for Skolars’ coach Joe Mbu.

The youngest coach in the professional game, Joe has packed a lot into his 28 years including a highly successful spell as a tough, hard-working Super League back rower for London Broncos/Harlequins RL. For the last two years he’s been steering the fortunes of the Championship 1 club, who had one of their best ever seasons in 2012.

He has one of the toughest coaching jobs in the sport but Joe is not one to shy away from a challenge. When he came to London at the age of seven, from what was then Zaire in central Africa, he spoke only French and the native Congolese language and hadn’t a clue what Rugby League was. His family were seeking a better life away from a country ruled by the notorious dictator President Mobutu and Joe has certainly made the most of his opportunities.

By the age of 14 he was a tough, physical footballer until a cousin who, went to the school opposite the London Skolars ground in White hart Lane, told him the rugby club were looking for players.

“The only rugby that I was vaguely aware of was rugby union, which I’d seen on television,” said Joe. “I didn’t know the difference between league and union. My cousin said: ‘you’re quite strong and aggressive in football, do you fancy it?’

“I played football like I played rugby. I was always looking for contact and would hold the ball so people would then make contact and I’d push them off. I wasn’t very skilful but I had a powerful kick and was an aggressive defender so Rugby League fitted my nature I guess.”

Once he tried the game at Skolars he immediately fell in love with the sport.  “I liked what it offered. The fast pace and the discipline was what really attracted me to the game. No matter how heated things get you still have to maintain discipline because if you react poorly it affects your whole team. It was a real challenge.”

When the junior season was over he found himself in the Skolars’ first team and immediately attracted the attention of the London Broncos who signed him to their Academy.  “For me, the dream came true when I signed for the London Broncos,” he said.

“I moved into a house with three other players. We got Sky and my first experience of watching a Rugby League game live was on television at 16. It was St Helens and Leeds and I told the lads I was going to play Super League. They all laughed at me and said, ‘it’s not as easy as you think’ I said ‘I don’t care; I want to play Super League’.”

After being loaned out to both Huddersfield Giants and Leeds Rhinos to gain more experience, Joe made his Super League debut in 2003 at the age of 19. Over the next seven seasons he made over a 100 appearances for London Broncos/Harlequins RL, which included a brief spell with Doncaster. However, at 26 and seemingly in his prime, he decided to retire from the professional game.

“There was a lot of change at the time,” explained Joe. “I got married; my wife was expecting our first child and I wanted to see my little girl grow up. Given the amount of work we put in as full time professionals, sometimes it’s difficult to give that quality time to your family. Weekends are gone and when I came home from training the first thing I wanted to do was sleep for two hours.

“I’m very much a family man and in many ways I chose my family over my career.” But he wasn’t lost to the game and both the Broncos and Skolars offered him coaching positions within their youth programmes.

Despite the appeal of working in a Super League environment he opted to go back to his roots at Skolars. “I felt that the experience I’d picked up from the Broncos and with Huddersfield and Leeds would probably be more beneficial to them,” he said.

He started working as a Community Development Officer for the club and helped with the coaching of the under-16s. “Results-wise we weren’t successful that year but I managed is to get them to play as a team and enjoy the game. The years I really enjoyed my rugby was around 15/16 when you play simply for the enjoyment. Once you get into a highly competitive semi-pro or professional environment it’s easy to veer away from that.”

Not all players can make the transition from player to coach but Joe seems to have taken to the role. “Coaching is more than going out there, delivering a session and then going home. It’s about people management, dealing with individuals etc. I never knew how weird players were until I became a coach!

“It made me think about how I used to be with my  coaches. Had I known what I know now I’d have probably acted a bit differently  when I got dropped or something didn’t go my way.

“But life is about getting experience, knowledge, and understanding. In terms of delivering – coaching comes as naturally as playing. All I do is pass on what I’ve picked up from the various coaches I’ve had over the years.”

Two years ago he was asked to become head coach of the Championship 1 club and he admits it wasn’t an easy decision. Skolars have struggled to make an impact in Rugby League’s third tier and with the difficulty in attracting northern-based players to London, they have to rely on attracting locals to take up the game players and developing their own juniors .

However, Joe has seen real progress at the club over recent years. “From when I left to when I returned, I saw great progression in the whole structure from the office through to  junior development. When I first came here we were barely scraping together under-15s and under-16s teams, now we have players playing in all different age groups.

“Even though the first team and juniors are separate, they all have identical things in each of the age groups – I’ve spent time with the community guys and worked hard to bring a philosophy and a mentality to how we approach the game and how we play.”

It may be difficult to attract Northern players to the club but London Skolars are probably the most ethnically diverse clubs in the competition with a squad that includes Scots, Welsh, Australians, Polish, Jamaicans, Nigerians, and Ghanaians and of course a Congolese coach.

That’s the beauty of being in the capital and particularly in north London but being in a huge conurbation does have its drawbacks. “There’s a great challenge facing us in London,” says Joe. “It’s a big area and a big city. When you go from say Twickenham to north London, it’s like travelling to another town. It’s like living in Leeds and having to travel to Hull or Workington, which would take a couple of hours. We have players who commit to that regularly and the fact that they do it three times a week says a lot.”

On top of the travelling to training, there’s the journeys the players undertake every other week to fulfil their fixtures. Last year, with trips to north and south Wales, Cumbria and the North East as well as Lancashire and Yorkshire, they travelled over 4,000 miles. Despite this they had one of their best ever campaigns, just missing out on the play offs.

“It was very pleasing,” said Joe, “but I think there was more in us that we showed. If we had extra belief or maybe backed ourselves a bit more in certain games we would have found ourselves in a different situation to what we did.

“Credit to the players, they bought into what we were striving to do and every week they worked hard and put their hands up  – you can’t fault that.”

Championship 1 has been revamped for 2013 into a nine team league, including three, Gloucester, Oxford and Hemel, who will be new to the competition. It could be Skolars best ever chance of gaining promotion – although the details regarding promotion are still to be announced.

“If we as a team and a squad have a belief and all drive towards that belief then I see no reason why we can’t achieve what we set out to achieve. At the same time there will be eight other teams who set themselves the same challenge and it just comes down to who performs on the day.

“As far as  the three new clubs  are concerned, there’ll be some surprises if we don’t take them seriously or teams go out there and think, ‘three new teams who haven’t played at this level,’. They only have to look at The Crusaders as a model.

“It took them a while last season to find their feet but once they got that team thing going, they flew and they beat us convincing. I am confident but until we kick off and start delivering it’s anyone’s guess who’s going to get that promotion, whatever the structure is.”

The man from the Congo is clearly at home in north London with the Skolars and surprisingly has never been back to the place of his birth. “I’d get lost if I went back,” he said, “but one day I will!” Maybe to introduce them to Rugby League?

The final two games of the Autumn International Series will now be a mini series of England v France over the next two weekends. England play France at MS3 Craven Park, Hull on Saturday (Nov 3) and the second half of the double header takes place in Salford on Sunday November 11. These matches are key preparation for teams in the build up to next year’s Rugby league World Cup which is being held in England and Wales.

Tickets for both games are priced at £12 for adults and £6 for children and represent great value for families to come along and support the England team. Tickets can be booked on the RFL website http://www.therfl.co.uk/

Hull has a long tradition of staging international matches and Saturday’s game will see the England team led by new Captain Kevin Sinfield take on France, who will be based in Hull during next year’s World Cup. Speaking ahead of the game England coach Steve McNamara said;

“All the England players love coming to Hull because the reception they receive is always fantastic. We have spoken about playing at MS3 Craven Park this week in camp and the whole squad agreed that it’s a ground which creates a great atmosphere.”

“We expect a real physical battle against France. They are progressing in their Rugby League education and you only have to see how far the Catalan Dragons have developed over the past couple of years. They will want to cause us problems and make us work hard.”

England and Leeds Rhinos player Ryan Hall, recently voted the best winger in the international player of the year awards said;

“I always enjoy playing for England in Hull. They love their Rugby League and, for me, it is quite surreal that they are supporting us rather than against us which is always the case when I represent Leeds.

England and Wigan Warriors Sam Tomkins, the 2012 Man of Steel said;

“It really gets the team buzzing when we are playing in front of some big crowds. To fill Craven Park and then the week after at Salford would be fantastic. We want to put on a great display for the public and now for the first time in a very long time we are playing like a quality club side where every player appreciates it other. The next step is for all the fans to get together as one and get behind England.”

The partnership will see a number of players join the Championship 1 side on dual registration deals throughout the 2013 season, a continuation of previous seasons which has seen players join the north London club to earn valuable first team experience.

As part of the revised player pathway rules set out by the RFL for the 2013 season, the Broncos can now loan the Skolars up to five players through the dual registration set-up, an increase from four in 2012.

The new agreement will also see the two clubs share strength, conditioning and medical knowledge throughout the season.

The two clubs will also play their traditional pre-season friendly, The Capital Challenge, at the HAC in the heart of the City on Friday January 11. It will be the ninth consecutive year the fixtures has been played.

Broncos head of youth performance Phil Jones said: “I am really excited about this partnership with the London Skolars, which is a brilliant extension to our current interaction.

“The two clubs working even closer together will ensure that young players on the fringe of first grade will get chance to compete against experienced older players in Championship 1 and speed up their development into Super League athletes as well as supporting Skolars’ aim to gain promotion to The Championship.

“The sharing of ideas on coaching, medical, strength and conditioning will help both clubs strive to become leading organisations in their respective competitions.”

London Skolars head coach Joe Mbu is already looking forward to the new partnership, which will see the former Bronco attend regular training sessions with his counterpart Tony Rea.

“As I enter my third season as head coach of Skolars, I see the relationship between ourselves and Broncos as being key to the season ahead,” said Mbu.

“This agreement strengthens the ties we have worked on and is as important for the players who come to the Skolars from the Broncos as it is for the clubs. I am looking forward to working closely with Tony Rea and his staff in the coming season.”

Skolars director Hector McNeil says the deal is a formalisation of a working relationship the clubs have enjoyed for a number of years.

“Whilst we’ve enjoyed a good relationship over the years, this agreement puts the partnership on a more formal basis and defines the commitment that both sides have agreed to put in to ensure we both reap the rewards of working closely together.

“The dual registration system will benefit both clubs and can enhance the development of the players concerned. 2013 will see a strengthening of the ties between the two clubs with the coaching and medical/support teams working more closely than ever before. I am grateful to the Broncos board for their continuing support of this key partnership. Two thriving, successful rugby league clubs in London is our common goal.”

London Skolars have announced the signing of three players from London Broncos.

Back Row Jack Dillon (20) is a product of the successful London RL schools pathway and has been with Broncos since the age of 16.

Outside Back James Morgan (19) began his rugby career at the age of 6 playing out of the Hunslet Warriors club before being snapped up by the Featherstone Rovers Academy prior to his move to Broncos.

Completing the trio of signings from Broncos is Alex Anthony (20) who will be joining brother James at Skolars, who has enjoyed two very successful years since joining the club.

Skolars head Coach Joe Mbu had this to say about the signings: “I’m delighted that Jack, James and Alex have decided to sign for Skolars. I’ve monitored their progress at Broncos and believe that they will be quality additions to my squad for 2013 and I’m looking forward to working with them.”

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