AS the only fluent Spanish-speaking development officer employed by the National Rugby League, Daniel Sarmiento holds a vital position in the game.
Also a foundation member of Latin American Rugby League, Colombian-born Sarmiento makes the game accessible for 470 million people worldwide who boast Espanol as their native tongue.
Ahead of the January 17 clash between Latin America’s representative side – the GYG Latin Heat – and Asia Cup champions the Philippines at Bishop Park in Brisbane, he cannot believe the growth of the sport in just 18 months.
The project came from inauspicious beginnings – when three Colombians met on a hot, dusty suburban field to tackle away their Sunday afternoon in July 2013.
Sarmiento became the first captain of the GYG Heat side and later played in the team’s first match against international opposition – a 114-0 loss to the red-hot Philippines.
The side that day was cobbled together from a hardy bunch of men, only three of whom were regular rugby league players.
And while the defeat was large, it was worn as a badge of honour by the participants, aware they had just made history through sacrificing their bodies in honour of their heritage.
This time around, 12 months on from the last Heat-Tamaraws clash, Latin America will go in with the depth for three teams and coming off a 40-6 win in their last start against Portugal.
Along the way they have also played World Cup quarter finalists the USA, emerging powerhouse Greece and developing Asian nations Thailand and Japan.
“It’s amazing how much it has grown, both in terms of players and supporters,” says Sarmiento, these days a resident of Petrie on Brisbane’s northern outskirts.
“And I’m not just talking about the work we have been doing with the Latino community in Australia – but there is also genuine interest from abroad.
“I took some time off in mid 2014 to travel through Latin America and held a few coaching clinics in Mexico and Colombia, as well as speaking with Latinos in the USA.
“Through a lot of other people’s hard work they are now playing rugby league regularly in Mexico and my Colombian friends and family are always asking me about how the teams are doing here.”
Sarmiento has always carried a team-first ethos and has played not only his favoured position of five-eighth, but also as halfback and hooker when needed.
It is one of just many reasons why he shared the ‘Latin Spirit’ award with Peruvian teammate Luis Guillermo Fhon when the Heat held their inaugural trophy presentation recently.
For the upcoming Magellan Trophy against the Philippines, Sarmiento will step back to help co-captain Latin America’s Development Squad – a mixture of players either new to the game or who haven’t played regularly in a number of years.
“There are two things that have surprised me the most since we began Latin Heat,” he says.
“One is the amount of guys who were completely foreign to the game that showed up to training week after week and showed so much willingness to learn, even when it can be such a brutal game at times.
“The second fact is there are actually a lot more Latinos out there in Australia that have grown up playing the sport than I could ever have imagined.
“I’d really like to see the game grow to encompass all of South America, but at the same time use it to bind the Latino community here and keep the same tightness we now share.”
Following the Magellan Trophy day, the next step for Latin American Rugby League will be supporting Chile and El Salvador in their first stand-alone appearances in rugby league, at the January 31 Cabramatta International Nines.
MAGELLAN TROPHY 2015 – Sat Jan 17, Bishop Park, Nundah
4pm – Youth Game – United Nations (Latin America/Africa) v Philippines.
5.10pm – Men’s Development – Latin America v Philippines
6.30pm – Bundaberg Indigenous Wellbeing XIII v QLD Maori
8pm – International – GYG Latin Heat v PAL Philippines Tamaraws