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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    The Crowd Says (243)

    • March 18th 2017 @ 1:47pm
      Jaxson said | March 18th 2017 @ 1:47pm | ! Report

      Awesome article, so glad to see chile make a really good debut ??

    • March 18th 2017 @ 1:51pm
      Flea said | March 18th 2017 @ 1:51pm | ! Report

      Not surprising that former League players get the attention of Union fans when they’re head and shoulders above their teammates. It must be such a thorn in the side for World Rugby to see League players breeze into the very top of Union.

      • March 18th 2017 @ 4:26pm
        Mathew Stealer said | March 18th 2017 @ 4:26pm | ! Report

        Which are these players Flea? Are you Leaguies that deluded??

        • March 19th 2017 @ 12:04am
          Flea said | March 19th 2017 @ 12:04am | ! Report

          Check out the best players on most union teams…..

      • March 18th 2017 @ 10:17pm
        Mack said | March 18th 2017 @ 10:17pm | ! Report

        Folau not better than Ben smith. SBW second to nonu throughout his career. Next.

      • March 19th 2017 @ 10:51pm
        In Brief said | March 19th 2017 @ 10:51pm | ! Report

        There are more rugby union players in the NRL today than ever before, it’s just that the league mafia is sworn to secrecy on rugby union player’s backgrounds. A lot of club rugby players who never came close to representative honours have killed in the NRL in recent years.

        • March 19th 2017 @ 11:25pm
          Crosscoder said | March 19th 2017 @ 11:25pm | ! Report

          What a load of rubbish. In Brief and you have brought this falsehood up before.

          Warren mentions player’s former ru status.He did it with Koreibete,The new Storm winger,.He mentioned the Canterbury winger going to play for the Force being a former ru player.Winterstein’s brother.
          Ray Price’s former ru background was mentioned many times in the past,as was Michael Cleary’s
          ,Russel Fairfax,Brett Papworth,John Gray,even Luke Keary,John Brass,Polla Mounter,Stephen Knight. many from the past you probably wouldn’t know.And indeed Warrior’s players with a union background.Darryl Halliigan;s ru background when he played was brought up.

          What the hell is there to hide? Players move back and forwards.

          • March 20th 2017 @ 10:00am
            Mathew Stealer said | March 20th 2017 @ 10:00am | ! Report

            Now Crosscoder if i was you id stay away from channel 9s today show today they are broadcasting from an AFLs training ground this morning. Your blood will boil and you will be back on Twitter and social media whinging

            • March 20th 2017 @ 12:05pm
              Crosscoder said | March 20th 2017 @ 12:05pm | ! Report

              Mathew you’re not me thank the Lord, and the ch9 can do as they please and they usually do.They are the self described rugby league station ,bit like Nth Korea calling themselves the Democratic Republic.
              They can have a training ground and fumble away on Pinchgut on Sydney Harbour,it means SFA to me.

              I don’t use twitter my social media times are spent responding to clueless rl thread jackers.No names ,no pack drill.I suspect you have a fair idea.

    • March 18th 2017 @ 1:51pm
      Cathar Treize said | March 18th 2017 @ 1:51pm | ! Report

      Enjoyable read, thank you. From small acorns hey. I note the Toronto Wolfpack have just signed digital/online rights to Canada’s largest FTA network CBC which can show anything is possible in the Americas.

      • March 18th 2017 @ 4:24pm
        Mathew Stealer said | March 18th 2017 @ 4:24pm | ! Report

        Cathar is that the Toronto Wolfpack that is full of Aussies and Kiwis and Poms? I wonder if the locals know they exist

        • March 18th 2017 @ 4:40pm
          Agent11 said | March 18th 2017 @ 4:40pm | ! Report

          shouldn’t you be voting on which super rugby team is going to get chopped?

          • March 18th 2017 @ 4:53pm
            Mathew Stealer said | March 18th 2017 @ 4:53pm | ! Report

            No too familiar on Union, but i think because they keep bringing in teams from other countries they reduce the number of Australian teams in Super Rugby. Kind of like Rugby League Agent.. dont you think??

        • Roar Guru

          March 18th 2017 @ 5:00pm
          Sleiman Azizi said | March 18th 2017 @ 5:00pm | ! Report

          Yes, that is the same Toronto Wolfpack filled with Aussies, Kiwis and Poms. Plus the odd North American or two.

          You’re probably also aware that suburban eligibility rules have long since been abandoned.

    • March 18th 2017 @ 1:53pm
      Hammerhead said | March 18th 2017 @ 1:53pm | ! Report

      Don’t think it’ll make much difference in football mad Latin America. Former Western Bulldog Jose Romero was born in Chile and Heretier Lumumba was born in Brazil – where are all the Chileans and Brazilians kicking Sherrins?

      • March 18th 2017 @ 2:06pm
        Flea said | March 18th 2017 @ 2:06pm | ! Report

        Difference is that AFL has no real bearing in the outside world. Whereas League players are using Union to springboard into the homes of people in nations already playing Union.

        • March 18th 2017 @ 2:19pm
          duecer said | March 18th 2017 @ 2:19pm | ! Report

          The real proof in the pudding will come if any of these ventures develop into professional competitions. Just about every country in the world has numerous teams in every sport – even AFL has a few teams dotted around the world, but none have gone down that route.

          • March 18th 2017 @ 3:42pm
            Cathar Treize said | March 18th 2017 @ 3:42pm | ! Report

            Thailand RL backed by True Visions media has launched a semi professional comp after a few years of development. PNG has a semi pro national comp & the Hunters are full time professionals. There is talk of the US launching a semi pro leading to a professional comp in the not to distant future so RL is making some right moves. I think RL is far ahead of AFL world-wide in terms of the number of govts which now recognise the sport, well run comps, international interaction between RL nations etc

            • March 18th 2017 @ 4:23pm
              Mathew Stealer said | March 18th 2017 @ 4:23pm | ! Report

              Cathar is that like the recent Thailand vs Hungary international played on a soccer oval at a high school in Liverpool Western Sydney? Atleast the players family and friends didn’t have to travel far to see them play. Still 120 years of existence and nothing to show but a World Cup where if you aren’t good enough to play for 1 of 3 legitimate countries you can go play for another one.
              You lot want to be taken seriously?

              • Roar Guru

                March 18th 2017 @ 5:04pm
                Sleiman Azizi said | March 18th 2017 @ 5:04pm | ! Report

                The provincial mind has stymied league’s international development so unfortunately yes Mathew, it has taken ‘120’ years to get this far.

              • March 18th 2017 @ 5:04pm
                AussieIrish said | March 18th 2017 @ 5:04pm | ! Report

                Mate, as a fellow Rugby follower, who’s knowledge of League is scant but fairly obviously more than yours, don’t comment on things you know little about.

              • March 18th 2017 @ 5:11pm
                Mathew Stealer said | March 18th 2017 @ 5:11pm | ! Report

                AussieIrish im far from a Rugby follower. Im a realist sports follow of multiple sports and i know what delusion is when i see it.
                If i didnt know about the Thailand vs Hungary game why would i comment mate?

              • March 18th 2017 @ 9:24pm
                Minefield said | March 18th 2017 @ 9:24pm | ! Report

                Will RL have another Island international in WS this year with ex Rugby players from Sydney playing each other.

              • March 19th 2017 @ 11:51am
                Justin Kearney said | March 19th 2017 @ 11:51am | ! Report

                Mathew. Welcome back! Third nickname in one month.

          • Roar Guru

            March 18th 2017 @ 11:33pm
            Sleiman Azizi said | March 18th 2017 @ 11:33pm | ! Report

            It won’t really matter if these ventures develop into professional competitions as long as they develop into reasonably stable and consistent amateur competitions.

        • March 18th 2017 @ 10:19pm
          Mack said | March 18th 2017 @ 10:19pm | ! Report

          Flea AFL is just as big as league is internationally i.e. Tiny

          • Roar Guru

            March 18th 2017 @ 11:35pm
            Sleiman Azizi said | March 18th 2017 @ 11:35pm | ! Report

            Actually, rugby league is much, much bigger internationally than AFL but yes, both sports are rather tiny when compared to say soccer, basketball, tennis or golf.

            But I suspect you had another point you wanted to make?

          • March 19th 2017 @ 12:14am
            Flea said | March 19th 2017 @ 12:14am | ! Report

            Try again mate. Lol.

          • March 19th 2017 @ 9:04am
            Agent11 said | March 19th 2017 @ 9:04am | ! Report

            Maybe, but League is played professionally in at least 4 countries and semi pro in around 7 or 8. AFL is played professionally in 1 country and it’s international aspect is an annual game vs a bunch of irish potato farmers.

            • March 20th 2017 @ 5:48pm
              Moonboot said | March 20th 2017 @ 5:48pm | ! Report

              Yes RL is international – Toni Carroll played for 3 countries in 5 years. The AFL could have a World Cup too with some local comp players (Greece etc ) and topups from Melbourne, Adelaide Perth and lightweights are drawn away from the heavyweights eg the 2013 RLWC in the most uneven draw which remarkably outdoes the uneven Super 18 draw. And then you can have flag of convenience playing for any country you are eligible for and then change.. Doesn’t make it an international game. BTW that Melbourne Storm winger Vanivalu was in the Auckland Blues academy system and now touted for the RL Kiwis (or Fiji or Australia or Jamaica as well probably) but like all ex RU players you would be hard pressed to read about it in the RL press.

              • March 20th 2017 @ 7:25pm
                Crosscoder said | March 20th 2017 @ 7:25pm | ! Report

                Moonboot.The old Toni Carrol stale argument,that cannot happen again.
                The Storm winger is still a Fijian whether he played marbles.
                There is no semi pro of fully pro AFL comp outside Australia BTW.
                They could have a world cup, but I doubt Govts would spend monies backing it as the English Govt has done to teh tune of 25m P for the RLWC 2021.

                You obviously have no idea of what the definition of International is

                Moonboot or is it in Brief same modus operandi.Vanivalu has been mentioned quite a few times as having a ru background.You wouldn’t get hot in the Vic press, because that mob
                ignore rl and ru.

          • March 20th 2017 @ 2:54pm
            clipper said | March 20th 2017 @ 2:54pm | ! Report

            That’s the reality, Mac – both are tiny internationally, but at least it’s getting people involved in sport. Just about every country plays a myriad of sports nowdays – look how Kabbadi has expanded. Nothing wrong with that.

            • March 20th 2017 @ 5:51pm
              Crosscoder said | March 20th 2017 @ 5:51pm | ! Report

              Yet still no pro and semi pro clubs overseas, that’s a big difference .That is also the reality.And little or no Foreign Govt recognition with grants.

        • March 19th 2017 @ 4:17am
          Minefield said | March 19th 2017 @ 4:17am | ! Report

          Yes there are billions following Rugby league in Europe

      • March 18th 2017 @ 2:12pm
        Ecuadorian Sam Burgess said | March 18th 2017 @ 2:12pm | ! Report

        Can’t wait till league takes off in Latin America. Can you imagine the international rivalries between these countries in World Cup qualifiers. I’d love to see it become more popular than soccer.

      • March 18th 2017 @ 2:14pm
        Cathar Treize said | March 18th 2017 @ 2:14pm | ! Report

        People obviously weren’t inspired watching the AFL if it was on TV

    • March 18th 2017 @ 1:54pm
      Matthew said | March 18th 2017 @ 1:54pm | ! Report

      Glad Rugby League players are helping spread the game even though they’re not playing in the sport anymore!

      Sonny Bill and Folau show just how skilful players from the XIII player code are!

      • March 20th 2017 @ 5:51pm
        Moonboot said | March 20th 2017 @ 5:51pm | ! Report

        Last pay agreement the head of RLPA said if we cant keep superstars like Folau and Williams in the game then whats the point and there weren’t 2 players like them. Well so they were superstar players in RL and SBW was a good runon for the ABs and Folau was obviously a star but is struggling now as they have worked him out.

        • March 20th 2017 @ 7:27pm
          Crosscoder said | March 20th 2017 @ 7:27pm | ! Report

          Still the ARU and Tahs have no such problem pushing his(Folau’s) face on every print and PR grab.Probably teh only ru face recognisable in Sydney and Brisbane..

    • March 18th 2017 @ 2:06pm
      Adam said | March 18th 2017 @ 2:06pm | ! Report

      Quality. Look forward to these kind of things being common on RL rather than an occasional curiosity. So much room for growth if those in charge take advantage of it

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