Rugby League World in 2009 caught up with a former Leeds and Sheffield player who is now the assistant coach of the USA Tomahawks national team. Marcus Vassilakopoulos moved to the States, where his grandfather was born, in 2002 ago to teach and has been an integral part of the Rugby League scene ever since.
What’s your involvement in American Rugby League?
I’m the coach of the Aston Bulls, who used to be called the Glen Mills Bulls. I gave up playing a couple of years ago. I got a pretty bad knock in a semi-final a couple of years ago when the back of my head hit the ground and was hospitalised for a couple of days and thought it was time to give it up! I’m also assistant coach to David Niu for the national team, working on the team’s defence and I’m excited about it. We play Jamaica in November.
Will it be an annual event?
I think that’s the plan and they might be looking to add a couple of teams like South Africa and Japan but, firstly, we’ll just see how this goes. It’d be great if it was annual because we need more internationals.
What are the standards like?
They’re probably similar to the National Conference Premier Division – the top teams anyway. In the last three years the Grand Final have attracted big crowds and clubs are popping up everywhere. There’s a guy in Chicago who’s trying to organise things as is someone in the Arizona area and Hawaii too. It’s pretty comforting to know the game is growing.
Do you think you’ll qualify for a World Cup soon?
It would be awesome! I was involved in the game against Samoa when we tried to qualify for the last World Cup. We have some new guys coming through the ranks who look really good and I think we’ll push for a place, especially if we find a few more players in the Super League and NRL who qualify for us. More and more are springing up anyway. The key areas for us are the halfbacks and hooker because we have good athletes which we can put around them.
How much media exposure does the game get in the USA?
Every team has a website and tries to promote themselves as much as they can but we’re competing with rugby union too.
Do you anticipate a big breakthrough coming anytime soon?
David Niu is in discussions with backers for a professional league but it’s taking longer than he thought but he’s hoping to have something accomplished in the next year.
Tell us about the time USA almost beat the Kangaroos.
We played Australia in 2004 and were winning at half-time which was absolutely incredible! It was straight after they’d won the Tri-Nations in England, beating Great Britain 44-4 in the final. Some people say the Aussies were hung over and on holiday from the tour etc, but we still competed with the best team in the world and only lost by 10 or 12 points. It was a great experience. I also played against the Aussie touring team in 1994-95 for Leeds which was awesome.
Are you happy with what you achieved in your playing career?
I played four times for Great Britain Academy including a tour to Australia with Iestyn Harris and Sean Long. I’d have liked to have done more in my senior career but I tore the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee when I was at the Rhinos and that set me back. But I still made close to 50 appearances for Leeds and 20-odd for Sheffield. I played at Wembley in a Challenge Cup final and at Old Trafford in a Premiership. I also went on a World Club Challenge tour with the Eagles to Australia so I can’t complain!
You played with some high-profile at Leeds. What do you remember of them?
Ellery Hanley was a fantastic person to be around just for his experiences in the game and Garry Schofield was the same way. They were great blokes who were accommodating if you wanted to talk about anything. They’d try and help you out. I played with Adrian Morley too, who was just starting out but he’s become a huge figure in the game. I still keep in touch with him and used to see him in Sydney quite a lot when I lived in Australia.
Do you still follow the club?
Yes, I still have a soft spot for Leeds. I signed for them at 15 so it’s kind of natural. I watched the Grand Final over the internet and it was great to see them win a third in a row.
You played a big part in Sheffield beating Perth in 1997 didn’t you?
Yes, I pulled the ball out from their fullback right at the end. We’d kicked it long, he was trying to bring it back and we scored from it. That was a pretty cool night.
Why didn’t you play at Wembley in 1998?
I missed out on selection; there wasn’t an injury. It was kinda tough but I was still part of it and it was a great experience. I played in one of the early rounds and I missed one when I was taken sick on the morning of the match.
Where did you go after Sheffield?
I went to Hull KR on loan for a month then I went to Hunslet and we won the Grand Final against Dewsbury. Then Mark Aston asked me back to Sheffield when the new club was being formed so I had a year there before playing on the Central Coast in Australia for a couple of years. My visa then came through for the States and I’ve been here ever since. I met a girl, had a couple of daughters and have settled down. I think I’ll be hanging around here for a while!