The Joe Mbu Interview

31st October 2012

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?

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