Two surprising ambassadors who grew League in Latin America

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    Like the first human to jump aboard the back of a wild horse, Bulldogs winger Marcelo Montoya set a daring, historic example last night that’s sure to inspire others to follow suit.

    Without intimately knowing the family backgrounds of every player to grace a field, he’s believed to have become the first player of direct Chilean descent to make the NRL.

    Though born in Fiji, his dashing name is a dead giveaway of his Latino parentage, making him a hero for fledgeling competitions in an untapped part of the world called home by 600 million people.

    As simplified as it may seem, with a try on debut in far-flung Dunedin he eclipsed what has been done through years of development work in South and Central America.

    Because, when people see someone of the same make-up, the same visage, achieve a feat they previously thought beyond the realms of possibility – and do so on a grand stage – they start to believe.

    And then they start to aspire and achieve.

    But before we get carried away with an NRL career that’s only 80 minutes old, it’s interesting to note who the two most influential players have been to date in allowing rugby league to take root in Latin America.

    The answer will make rugby league tragics think differently about how they perceive these two men.

    And it makes you question how over-reactive we’ve been when our superstars have turned and walked in another direction.

    “In my youth in Buenos Aires we were sold a message that rugby union was the only form of rugby played anywhere,” says Carlos Varela, now president of Confederacion Argentina de Rugby League.

    “Little by little over the course of my life I learned this was not necessarily the case, but it wasn’t until a very good player was televised here that I, and others, started taking big notice.

    “This player was more ductile than others, faster, had very secure body positioning on the field.

    “The commentators said ‘So and so comes from rugby league… from NRL’ and that’s what led me to look deeper and find out about that modality of the sport.”

    The player Senor Varela refers to was Israel Folau.

    Israel Folau NSW Waratahs Super Rugby Rugby Union 2016

    For all the misgivings rugby league fans may have about Folau’s decision to try other codes, he has done more to spread the 13-man code than hundreds of the game’s best players.

    All because rugby union gave him a platform to take his wondrous skills into new territories that league was not reaching.

    Each time he starred for the Wallabies or the Waratahs, people overseas started searching for his highlights clips.

    And suddenly, they were looking at images on YouTube of him scoring impossible tries in State of Origin, monstering older men as a teenager in Melbourne, playing to packed crowds for the Brisbane Broncos.

    They then noticed players wore different numbers in these games, played to different rules and collided more spectacularly.

    Welcome to the way sports marketing works in the 21st century.

    For all the analytics at our disposal, the data capture and customer profiling, on the other end of the keyboard are serendipitous humans who still make decisions and form opinions of free will.

    The example of Folau makes it easy to guess who the other NRL player to help plough a path in Latin America has been.

    Indeed, there are influential administrators and coaches across multiple Latino nations who switched on to the sport because of Sonny Bill Williams.

    All Blacks player Sonny Bill Williams

    His impact is particularly noticeable in Brazil, where in three cities separated by 1000km, three entirely unrelated men started following the Roosters and teaching the game of rugby league around the same time, inspired by SBW.

    That was largely because the tricolours won the title in 2013 when Sports+ was televising NRL fixtures into the world’s fifth most populous country (they’ve since gone bust).

    But it was also because Williams had been given exposure in union before and after that made people further aware of his phenomenal skills and marketable personality.

    SBW fans in Colombia and Mexico having a big say in the way the game is taking shape there prove it is no anomaly.

    In the South Pacific it might be Jonathan Thurston, Greg Inglis and Cameron Smith who sell rugby league, but elsewhere it’s two guys who don’t even play the same code who’ve done the job inadvertently.

    However, back to Montoya and what it means for him to cross for a try in what might become an otherwise inconsequential Round 3 affair.

    For a brief, flitting minute it puts a tiny spotlight on Chile where, from zero rugby league clubs less than two years ago, there are now eight.

    They’re close to one of the lowest-ranked sides in international footy, coming in at 34th.

    But, as a source of pride for them, they’re also the highest-ranked nation in Latin America.

    Having someone with at least a partial Latino genetic composition crack the big time means there’s no discounting the possibilities for others anymore.

    It can be done. It has been done.

    Robert Burgin
    Robert Burgin

    Robert Burgin is a sports writer of 20 years with a particular appetite for Rugby League's exotic and bizarre tales. Find him on Twitter @RobBurginWriter.

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