TWELVE players made their debuts for the GYG Latin Heat as the plucky South and Central American rugby league pioneers tested Africa United in a 36-22 loss at Cabramatta, western Sydney, on Saturday.
In a game where 79 countries were represented by the Latin Heat (24 nations combined) and Africa United (55 nations combined), the Africans started and finished the strongest, but were made to fight for the win.
In the fortnight leading into the game Latin Heat had a dozen topline players withdraw through various commitments, but their replacements were among the shining lights in a gutsy display.
Fullback Thomas Garrido (pictured below) of Chile was particularly impressive in his first game for the Heat, scoring two tearaway tries as the Latinos pulled as close as 24-16 midway through the second half.
The former St George Dragons SG Ball player’s second try came from a 90m return of a towering bomb, where he sliced through half-a-dozen players.
Another debutant who made spectators on the global livestream take notice was interchange prop Paul Vitale, fresh from a trial with the Canberra Raiders Under 20s.
Vitale had previously represented both Samoa and Latin America in junior representative competitions, but not represented his shared Chilean heritage on the senior stage.
Both Vitale and replacement hooker Gabriel Papa were members of the first ever Latin American junior rugby league team in 2014 at the Harmony Cup.
Standing the same height as Rob Burrow and Allan Langer at 165cm, but only weighing 55kg, 18-year-old Papa was inspirational as he brought down players more than twice his size.
He also scampered over for a critical 52nd minute try that put Latin Heat back in the contest after a 20-6 halftime score.
At the other end of the spectrum from the fresh-faced teen was 40-year-old rookie Paco Godinez, an emergency replacement for the Heat after forward Nick Doberer succumbed to back spasms in the warm-up.
A warrior for El Salvador through its formative rugby league campaigns, Godinez took the opportunity with both hands to play in the Latin Heat Elite squad, displaying typically stern defence.
The following day, a Sunday, he went back to his job as a painter, completing a job he had to delay due to his commitment to the team.
Another veteran who put up his hand for a late debut was 36-year-old Ecuadoran architect Johnny Vasco, while coach Jye Sommers (36 in December) returned from retirement before breaking his nose in the first half.
Up front Colombian tyro Seb Martinez provided a sequence of bone-crunching tackles, while 130kg Peruvian Sean Day (main image) was largely responsible for the Latinos’ second-half momentum.
Indeed, there was no faulting the effort across the park as five-eighth James Horvat continued to be aggressive in both attack and defence, while teenage centres Patrick Caamano and Anthony Maatouk (pictured below) kept busy taking the workload off their inside men.
There were injuries to important players on both sides, with impressive forward Alvin Olivares Ekes of Chile and African centre Bill Benjamin both leaving the field with identical shoulder injuries in the first half.
South African Test player Joel Tubbs was a standout up front for Africa United, along with backrower Steman Mow, winger Geofrey Duku and five-eighth Safawo Eggu.
Fullback Obed Karwhin, a former Wests Tigers and Manly Sea Eagles lower grade player highlighted by the NRL for his inspirational story as a childhood refugee, was a handful in defence as usual.
At fulltime players from both sides gathered on the field to share a prayer and exchanged heartfelt words about efforts to spread the game of rugby league on both continents.
Both Latin Heat and Africa United will appear in a designated ‘regional’ pool at the 2018 Emerging Nations World Cup, along with other potential composite sides including the ASEAN Confederation, Mediterranean-Middle East and Scandinavia.
NRMA AFRICA UNITED 36 (Mun Mupiou 2, Isaac Geri 2, Geofrey Duku 2, Safawo Eggu, Joel Tubbs tries; Obed Karwhin 2 goals) defeated GYG LATIN HEAT 22 (Thomas Garrido 2, James Horvat, Gabriel Papa tries; James Horvat 3 goals) at New Era Stadium, Cabramatta, Sydney.
GYG LATIN HEAT ELITE SQUAD: Thomas Garrido*, Claude Jackson*, Anthony Maatouk*, Patrick Caamano*, Javier Alarcon*, James Horvat, Brad Millar, Brandon Tobar, Niko Cama, Eduardo Wegener, Alvin Olivares Ekes*, Paco Godinez*, Israel Perez. Interchange: Sean Day, Paul Vitale*, Jye Sommers, Seb Martinez*, Johnny Vasco*, Will Gomez*, Gabriel Papa*. Head Coach: Jye Sommers.
*Latin Heat Elite Squad Test debut.
NRMA AFRICA UNITED SQUAD: Obed Karwhin, Isaac Geri, Mun Mupiou, Bill Benjamin, Geofrey Duku, Safawo Eggu, Jonathan Saweris, Gerald Dzirutwe, Yibby Campbell, Joel Tubbs, Ben Jegede, Steman Mow, Sabir El Has. Interchange: Colin Warwick, Seth Buckley, Gak Riec, Acout Dut, Scott De Zoeten, Job Baboth, Fairouz Elkander. Coach: David Fauonuku.
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