By Andrew Charles, match official and NSW Latino coach.
I am a Rugby League journeyman. Not by design, it has just happened that way.
Rugby League has taken me to some exotic places such as Fiji, Thailand, Philippines, Japan and Hong Kong – oh and New Zealand of course.
So, when an opportunity arose to be involved with the inaugural Latin America Rugby League Championships, I grabbed it with both hands.
You see, my past experiences tell me that these type of events are not just about Rugby League games. It is far more than that. For some, it is accepting a personal challenge to play one of the toughest sports on the planet, for others it’s an opportunity to connect with their heritage and family members abroad. For all, it’s a moment where they get to represent their countries.
By the end of it, networks are built, desires are created, clubs are formed and countries add a new game to their list of approved sports. “I am already looking forward to the next one” is a common phrase posted on social media.
For me, I have been lucky to witness it before. Firstly, with the Australian Jillaroos where I was on the coaching staff in just their second official game. Twenty years later, they lifted their second World Cup live on television.
Secondly, I experienced it as Founder of Thailand Rugby League, giving Thai heritage players a chance through the game to connect with each other and their extended families. They now play on a regular basis and Rugby League is an official sport approved by the Thai government.
From little things, big things grow.
So this tournament, featuring hosts Chile, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil, was important for Rugby League and, as a volunteer, was important for me also. With four full international matches over two days, I put my hand up to assist the main Spanish-speaking referee with the workload.
To do this, I gave up a few days to study the laws of Rugby League, pass an exam and do my Level 2 Referees Course to enable me to officiate a game at this level. I also did a few extra specific fitness sessions to ensure that I lasted the distance.
As I had never travelled to South America before this was a very exciting trip and luckily for me, by chance the Colombian captain, Seb Martinez, was on the same flight.
Seb and I also got to meet Juan Perez, the Spanish-speaking referee who was born in Chile. So three people who had not met before were suddenly getting to know each other over beers in Barrio Bellavista.
Rugby League does that.
We arrived in Los Angeles, the host city of the Championships after a five-hour road trip. Nice place. We made a visit to the headquarters where the teams were staying and, as the teams arrived eventually, they were ready for the opening ceremony. Well, except for Brazil. With a teammate having the misfortune of a flight delay, the rest of the squad made a decision to wait for him.
A trait from a good team culture, do everything together, one-in all-in. For the rest of the team to give up the opening function and a night’s sleep for a team mate is admirable from the Brazilians.
The three other participating nations, plus women’s teams from Argentina and Chile, looked splendid as they dressed up for the occasion. Although I did not understand a word of the speeches, I made out that everyone was made welcome and that all teams were ready to embrace Rugby League.
At 2am,Argentina gathered all their players together and surprised them with a jersey presentation which I was pleased to witness. Yes, an odd time for sure, but time with Emerging Nations teams is precious and not a minute is wasted. Each player was proud to receive their jersey from the captain and you could see it in their faces that this was their opportunity to represent their country. I was very grateful to receive a polo shirt for some earlier advice given to the team regarding rules and strategies of the game.
Game day arrived and as usual with events in new Rugby League countries there was still plenty of work to do before kick off. Lines had to be marked, benches need to be set up and donations received from all parts of the Rugby League world had to be organised. The good news is that Brazil had finally arrived, albeit hungry and tired.
We were ready for kick off and the first ever Rugby League international on South American soil was underway with Argentina taking on Colombia, both playing their first full Test match. Playing with flair and an up-tempo style of game, the Argentinians had a very good 36-4 win. The result raised a few eyebrows, but to be fair on the Colombians the match was a lot closer than the score indicated.
Game 2 of the double-header was experienced hosts Chile up against Brazil, who were playing their first Test. A special moment for Rugby League and for me personally as I had the job as controlling the game with the whistle.
Poor Brazil knocked on from the kick off then conceded a try from the scrum! Well, it could only get better for them and it did. They matched Chile for the first quarter of the game but the Chileans, with their four Aussie-based heritage players and some strong performances from the locals proved too good, winning 54-8.
I really enjoyed my time in the middle it was certainly a challenge. I have now experienced the highs and lows of coaching and refereeing an international match. I don’t think too many people in our great game can say that. Part of history maybe?
So Day 1 was completed and as night fell so did the temperature, it was freezing cold and the same volunteers that were there setting up were there again packing up. Funny that.
Juan and I, cold and hungry found the only restaurant open at 11pm in the small town of Mulchen and it was like our dreams had come true. Beautiful home cooked Chilean food by two lovely elderly ladies and some cold beer. Perfect.
Day 2 – Finals Day. Chile were to play Argentina in the final with Colombia taking on Brazil for third place. As a bonus, a women’s match between Argentina and Chile would take place which I had the pleasure of refereeing. Just six days earlier I attended the Australian Jillaroos World Cup launch at the Sydney Cricket Ground, where every current and past player received their unique playing number. I thought to myself, is this the match that in the future would lead to the Argentine and Chilean ladies one day receiving their numbers? I hope so.
Colombia vs Brazil came around in the men’s event and one of these teams would have their first-ever win after 80 minutes, so they were ready. Colombia started strongly and were controlling the game but the Brazil team – no matter what had gone against them – just keep coming. They hit the front with not long to go and an unlikely win was possible but Colombia refused to give in and scored a late try to give them victory 22-18. The elation from the Colombians was there for all to see. Scoring your first win is pretty special!
In the lead up to the big one, the ‘chicas’ played their second of two matches, with Argentina winning by a combined score of 26-0. They celebrated like they had just won the lottery! Small steps for both teams but perhaps a giant leap for Women’s Rugby League in Latin America.
All was ready for the big one, well except Argentina. Chile had taken the field and waited patiently for the anthems to begin. We watched and we waited for the finish of their pre game ritual and as they made their way over decided to take a half lap around the field and enter through the goalposts! Great theatre but light was fading.
Just like the recent World Cup the anthems were a highlight themselves with both teams standing face-to-face and singing very passionately. The players were highly emotional. It was great. Is the Argentine anthem the longest in the world? (Actually it is their neighbours Uruguay. I Googled it!)
The match got underway and it was a ferocious opening. Some big defence, bridging up and the odd push and shove. Referee Perez had his hands full. Chile got off to a flyer thanks to a mountain of possession. Argentina were still very emotional but there was a game of Rugby League happening and it was slipping away. It is a lesson they will take into future matches no doubt.
Experienced Chilean coach Rod Millar had his players sticking to basics of completing sets and building pressure and this was the difference between the two teams in the end with Chile winning 32-8 and becoming the inaugural Latin America champions.
The placings had been decided and the trophies were handed out. From a Rugby League point-of-view all four teams showed great promise, as good as any emerging nation.
Brazil had so much go against them, yet they almost won their first international. They will be much better with a different preparation and some solid training. Colombia really impressed me. They looked battered after day one but started to play as a League team on day two. Going forward, hitting the edges. They were well led by captain Seb Martinez.
Argentina, well where do we begin? They have the size, power and passion. All they need now is the know-how and some experience. They have great potential.
Chile are the number one team in Latin America. The four Aussie-based players played a big role in the team and, with two domestic competitions and a solid bunch of players abroad, they are the deserving front-runners. But, for how long?
As for the tournament itself, it was a huge step forward for the growth of Rugby League. It opens the door for thousands of opportunities for players and officials to participate in a new sport. Opportunities for leadership roles and mentoring all now exist. Rugby League in Latin America can also provide chances to travel and even study abroad. As a working class game, it has a perfect platform in Latin American countries. The people are tough, resilient and passionate.
This tournament was not without its issues. Logistically it was always going to be tough with participants travelling from four countries. However, nothing that cannot be fixed from the benefit of experience. The volunteers who did most of the organising, who I won’t name due to their humble nature, worked themselves to a standstill. I personally witnessed them going without food, sleep and putting their hand in their own pockets. As a Rugby League fan, and on behalf of all the others, I sincerely thank you for all your efforts. They were remarkable.
Finally, my thanks go out to the players both male and female. Stop and think for a minute what you have done. You sacrificed your time, money and effort to participate. You took no shortcuts; you put your bodies on the line. Most of you were learning the game and had the courage to go out of your comfort zones. Two full games in two days required strength, toughness and endurance. You did it. You never let yourself, your team mates or your country down. You were an inspiration and I salute you all.
For the players who made the trip from Australia, I don’t think you realise how much you actually achieved. Your visits to schools doing coaching clinics in Chile, your direction you provided at training sessions and your efforts on the field were exceptional. You are now role models for a lot of people, which also comes with responsibility. You done well fellas and lets hope more can follow from Australia for the next tournament.
As for me, this tournament provided me with a life experience like no other. I am extremely grateful for being warmly welcomed, for meeting a whole bunch of new friends, for visiting places I had never heard of and even sitting with the supporters of soccer giants River Plate at the famous El Monumental Stadium.
This is what Rugby League has done for me. This is what Rugby League is all about.
Life as a Rugby League journeyman continues.
- The 100% volunteer-run Latin American Rugby League was supported by Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taquerias, Shield Security Pty Ltd, Tattoo Tears, Cast Graphics, IntaGas Services, LS Tax & Accounting Services, Retro-Com Digital TV Specialists, Colombianos en Brisbane, GMA Tourism, EMSA Education and Migration Services Australia, Lichtnauer and Associates Accountants, The Edge Home Loans, Oaky North Lodge CFMEU, ACTIVE Rehabilitation Physiotherapy, Radio Austral and Fighting For Fitness Gym.