Wakefield Trinity’s Willie Poching reveals why long stay in England has proved real family affair
It was in January 1999 when, newly-arrived at a freezing Wakefield Trinity and after leaving sun-kissed Australia, Willie Poching agreed with his wife they would “do two years” and then go home.
Understandably, many Antipodean rugby league players have the same viewpoint. And many follow through with the promise.
However, this Kiwi second-row ended up doing three years with the West Yorkshire club.
And – almost a quarter of a century later since originally flying in from Sydney – he and his wife still haven’t gone home.
Poching, of course, is now Trinity head coach having taken over from Chris Chester last August and is preparing for the start of the new Betfred Super League season next month.
He admits he remains indebted to the sport here (that is reciprocated) and the people he and his family (two of his three grown-up sons still live in England) have met along the way that have helped them make Yorkshire their adopted home.
But having become such a legend, first with Trinity and then for Leeds Rhinos where he amassed more than 100 appearances and helped them to their first Super League title in 2004,
Poching reveals that initial move across the world so very nearly did not happen.
In a sliding doors moment, David Waite, his coach at St George Illawarra who would later become Great Britain chief, was against the idea of releasing the 24-year-old who had only made a handful of NRL appearances in the 1998 campaign.
“There were three of us at St George who all had the same agent,” Poching recalled.
“We all got gigs over here. Shane Kenward went to Salford, Nathan Antonik went to Keighley and I got sorted out with Hunslet. But they both went to see the club before I had a chance to speak to them to say I was going.
“We had a team meeting and David Waite said ‘no one else is leaving, I’m not letting anyone else go!’ But after we played a game against Cronulla, I told him I had this chance to go to England and play.
“I said I knew he’d said no one else can go but I think I needed to do this. And I had to go that weekend. He said he’d let me go but, as he didn’t know what would happen in the future – whether he’d coach me again or we’d meet – that he was doing it in good faith and not to tell anyone until it was done.
“I’d already told half the team anyway! But fortunately he was kind enough to let me go.”
It is often forgotten that it was Hunslet who gave Poching that first shot after their coach David Plange arranged for him to play two games at the end of the 1998 campaign.
“I came over just in the hope something was going to happen and it was a gamble,” he recalled.
“My wife ended up having our second child Bailey in Australia without me.
“But, looking back, I’d probably done enough in the two games I played against Featherstone and Hull KR to show what I could do.
“Fortunately, Wakefield got promoted that year so I met Steve Ferres and Andy Kelly who had come to the Fev game at Post Office Road, were happy with what they saw and, when I got home, offered me that contract.
“I jumped at it. Admittedly, on the Friday night when I was at Post Office Road, under those lights, in that mud, playing on the slope, I did think ‘I was at Cronulla a few days ago in that sun, what am I doing!?’.’
“But also while I was here with Hunslet – who were great – I went to Headingley and watched St Helens play Leeds.
“Just the atmosphere. It was packed. Awesome. And the speed of the game, I thought I wanted a piece of this.”
Poching, 48, continued: “We came across and it was January when we arrived at Wakefield.
“We’d just been in Townsville and the kids were playing around in high 30 degrees and they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t go out and play.
“We felt a bit guilty as parents but we understood why we were here. I did say we’re doing two years and we’re going home.
“But, that season I was fortunate to play well in a Wakey side that exceeded expectations, survived relegation with four or five weeks to go when people had us down to get relegated straight away. I really enjoyed my year.
“As I say to most of the Antipodeans who come across at this time of year, wait until summer comes around: pitches speed up, you can experience some sunshine and it’s a different place in the summer. Instead of the two years we’ve been here for 23.”
Granted, Poching, who won his solitary New Zealand cap against England in 2005, never envisaged being here this long.
But, after his playing days ended with Rhinos in 2006 he began his coaching career at Headingley as an assistant and similar roles have occurred at Warrington, Salford, Hull KR,
Huddersfield and Trinity before finally getting his shot at the main job last summer.
“It went from doing the two years, to going until I retire, and then it was we’ll go before the oldest child turns 10 and we’ll get him home for high school,” explained Poching.
“But then I started getting coaching jobs and my wife allowed me to go chase those opportunities here. And then it became more than us.
“It became about the kids and their lifestyles and forging their own friendship circles. They started making their own way in their lives.
“The eldest is 25 – he’s here and is English through and through. Our 23-year-old lives in New Zealand now and the 19-year-old (Kobe) who was born here, this is all he knows.
“He’s been back and tried to live in Aussie but, deep to his core, he’s a Wakey lad.For us to go home, it would have been tearing them away so it became more about them than us.
“We’ve got no regrets whatsoever and know what this country has given us and the life we’ve had especially for our children and the education they have been able to have. We also understand the environment they’ve been exposed to – schooling, living, working – has helped mould them into the people they are.
“We’ve met great people. When we first moved here, we were fortunate that the club put us in a cul-de-sac in Horbury where from the moment we moved in the neighbours were really welcoming and friendly. To this day we refer to some of them as family.”
And Poching has certainly become part of the rugby league family in these parts.
However, as he prepares to make his own mark on Trinity, building on the excellent work he did in tough circumstances last term, perhaps his greatest achievements here are still to come.
Wakefield fans will hope so.