ROMANIA’S chances of beating France in the Rugby World Cup tonight are rated at 25-1, which is roughly the odds you would get on a rugby league stalwart from Wakefield becoming an integral part of the east Europeans’ backroom staff.
Even the man himself, Neil Kelly, admits he sometimes finds it hard to believe where his career in rugby has taken him since his playing days with Dewsbury, Featherstone Rovers, Wakefield Trinity and Hunslet.
Kelly’s coaching career began with Dewsbury two decades ago. Competing against teams with far greater resources, he led them to top spot in the Northern Ford Premiership twice, as well as Grand Final and Trans-Pennine Cup victories, achieving the treble in 2000.
Bigger clubs came hunting and Kelly joined Widnes Vikings in 2001, guiding the fallen giants to promotion into Super League and being named the elite competition’s coach of the year in 2002.
Appointed team boss of Wales, for a while Kelly was one of rugby league’s hottest coaching properties, but after things turned sour at Widnes he found himself out of the game, other than a brief spell in charge of Leigh’s rugby department.
Until recently, that would have meant the end of his coaching ambitions, but league’s growing influence on the 15-a-side code has opened up a new world of possibilities and half a decade into his new life he finds himself part of one of sport’s greatest showpieces.
“It’s a long story,” said Kelly of his unlikely change of direction.
“When I left Widnes I went to a position with Ulster Rugby, through [current Bath coach and former rugby league star] Mike Ford.
“He put a word in for me. I spent four years at Ulster Rugby, but then I had a setback with my health.
“As part of the rehabilitation from that I ended up at Doncaster Rugby Union Club and I was lucky enough to go to the 2011 World Cup with Namibia.
“After that Romania offered me a position and I’ve been with them for the last three and a half years, as assistant coach, with special responsibilities for defence.”
Kelly is not the only Doncaster connection on the Oaks’ backroom staff. They are coached by Lynn Howells, who was in charge of the South Yorkshire club for a spell.
Though ever-presents at union World Cups, Romania are very much a work in progress, as is Kelly’s adjustment to a very different rugby culture.
“My Romanian isn’t very good,” he conceded. “I know how to get by on the rugby field, but if you asked me to hold a conversation I would be pushing myself too much. I spend roughly six months of the year in Romania.
“I go over for the November internationals, the Six Nations and the June and July internationals as well.
“We are still a developing nation rugby-wise, but they have been in every World Cup. They are still coming back from the Communist era.
“That’s when they lost all their funding and support.
“We are just rebuilding now and we are coming up. We’ve got to 17th in the world and we’ve got ambitions to go higher.”
France present tough first opponents for Romania, but Kelly says they are determined to enjoy tonight’s occasion and are confident they can at least give a good account of themselves.
“It’s fantastic to have an opportunity to play in the Olympic Stadium against France,” he said. “It will be a great occasion.
“Obviously Wembley Stadium against Ireland will be another big occasion for us, but the final two games, against Canada in Leicester and Italy in Exeter, hold the best chance of us getting a victory in the World Cup.
“We aren’t discounting the first two games, but our World Cup campaign is going to go right to the end because if you win two games, you qualify automatically for the next one in Japan in four years’ time.
“The last few times we’ve played Canada, we’ve beaten them.
“It is a long time since we’ve played Italy, but they are only two places above us, so we have a realistic ambition to get two victories at this World Cup.”
Despite his success in the 15-a-side code, Kelly has ambitions to return to his roots. He said: “I would love to come back to rugby league one day, hopefully the sooner the better.
“I have really enjoyed my time in rugby union and I’ve met some great people and been to some great places.
“But I am from Wakefield and in my heart, I am a rugby league coach. If the opportunity came up to go back, I’d love to take it.”