The Englishman plotting unlikely route to rugby league stardom

Ambitious Spain head coach Darren Fisher undaunted by the fact that sport is barely in its infancy south of the Pyrenees

A picture of Darren Fisher from his playing days.
A picture of Darren Fisher from his playing days.

Ambitious Spain head coach Darren Fisher believes he can help make ‘Los XIII del Toro’ become a big player in European rugby league within five years. The Spanish Rugby League Association (AERL) confirmed Englishman Fisher as national coach in November and charged him with the task of developing the sport in the country and making Spain competitive in international competition.

The 30-year-old, who works with English Super League club Wakefield Trinity Wildcats as scholarship coach, is set to take charge of Spain in its first international fixtures this year and hopes to give his squad every chance of featuring in the next Rugby League World Cup in 2017.

He admits the challenge is a tough one, but has been encouraged by the passion shown during his first training sessions in Valencia – and believes the job was written in the stars. “I was talking to my wife while I was on holiday in Puerto de Mazzarón near Murcia about there being no rugby league in Spain,” Fisher recalls.

“I returned home and noticed an advert for players and coaching staff in Spain and contacted the AERL to discuss the development of the game there. We exchanged some emails and I was offered the job as head coach. I’ve always wanted to work abroad but my mind was set on Australia. I’d had some offers there but then this one came along and it was too good to turn down. It was like fate brought me to it,” Fisher says.

“I spoke to [general manager] Aitor Davila and he told me there is a passion for the sport in Spain and I noticed that when I took my first training session at the start of December. The training was intense and there was pace and passion. I was impressed by it and encouraged by what the AERL has done in a short space of time; it’s exciting times.”

I was saying to my wife on holiday that there is no rugby league in Spain"

Spain has yet to play its first international match but its debut is not far away. Fisher, who will continue in his role as coach of amateur English club Eastmoor Dragons and Yorkshire under-19s while commuting to Valencia once a month, hopes he can convince Belgium to visit in April but has also contacted Hungary about a potential game in February. That match would be played in Paris to split costs but Fisher is eager to play on home soil to help spread awareness of the sport.

The AELR has also made positive steps forward by successfully achieving ‘Observer Membership’ with the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) this month, something that required completion of the necessary paperwork and an assessment by the RLEF. They join other countries including Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Trinidad and Tobago and United Arab Emirates as an ‘Observer’ nation and are keen to turn that into full membership as soon as possible. The formation of new clubs -- potentially in Madrid and Murcia – to complement existing ones in Valencia such as the Valencia Warriors and Irreductibles, and Alicante, alongside the staging of a first international match will help Spain push towards full RLEF membership and eligibility to compete in the sport’s major competitions such as the European Cup and World Cup. They are aims that won’t be achieved overnight, but Fisher is confident they are attainable in the long term.

“Initially I was asked to take on the role for one year, but we sat down and I said that it’s a long-term project so I’m in it for the long haul,” he explains. “We need to take small steps forward. The aim is to be pushing for qualification for the next World Cup in four years’ time.

“From what I’ve seen so far we can definitely compete in Europe and compete well. A lot of the players who have come forward are used to playing rugby union but they have the basic skills, they just need to learn some of the different rules. They know they’ll have a chance of representing their country in an international match so they’re prepared to do that and to adapt to the sport, which is encouraging.

From what I’ve seen so far we can definitely compete in Europe and compete well"

“We had over 40 players attend our first training session, which was great, and hopefully that will only increase with awareness of the sport in the country.”

Fisher, who played for Barrow Raiders and Batley Bulldogs in England, is keen for his squad to be born and bred in Spain and not follow the route other countries have taken in bringing in players from leading countries such as Australia, New Zealand and England who qualify to represent Spain on the big stage through their family roots. “You look at Italy during the World Cup -- they were made up of a lot of players from Australia who had no chance of representing their country of birth and instead looked for a way into the World Cup through other means,” Fisher says.

“Those players ended up being hated for that and I don’t want that with Spain. I want players from within Spain playing for their country and I’m confident we have the players here to do that.” French Super League club Catalan Dragons promoted the game in Barcelona when 18,500 fans watched its match against Warrington Wolves in 2009, but Fisher is hoping the game can spread beyond those boundaries.

‘Los XIII del Toro’ may not be a major player in European rugby league just yet but they’ll be worth keeping an eye on if Englishman Fisher has anything to do with it.

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