Written by Robert Burgin
Photo by Bruno Ruas
Each week Brasil Rugby League team manager Robert Burgin writes about his experiences helping to guide a developing rugby league nation to its debut World Cup appearance.
Wow, what a week!
I’m a big believer in the saying that you don’t celebrate your victories too hard, nor do you take your losses too deeply.
However, there have to be times you allow yourself to appreciate the journey and soak up a little joy. Otherwise, what purpose and fulfillment would there be at the end of each day?
Tuesday was definitely one of those days, when I switched off from ‘manager mode’ for five minutes to enjoy a sensation of childlike wonder.
After hurriedly cross-posting the announcement of the official World Cup draw across all of Brasil Rugby League’s, Latin American Rugby League’s and my own personal social media channels, I sat in my car and thought about what had just been revealed.
We already knew beforehand that Brasil would play England on November 9 in the opening match of the Women’s World Cup at Leeds Headingley Stadium. That in itself is pretty amazing. We couldn’t ask for more.
We knew prior that Brasil had also drawn PNG and Canada in its pool. A few months back, when Prince Harry conducted the pool draw, my wife and I could hardly breathe, overcome by anticipation, watching via a livestream as each nation was plucked out of the bowl.
What I didn’t know was where those games against PNG and Canada would be played, although we knew one game would be in Leeds also.
I kind of suspected our second game might be held in York, as several games were scheduled to be held there and it’s a short ride from Leeds. However, we were also told the venue could be anywhere within a two-hour radius, so I started thinking we’d be closer to Manchester.
What I didn’t suspect at all, maybe foolishly in hindsight, was that our game against PNG would be scheduled to be held at KCOM Stadium in Hull.
Hull might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but for me it has great significance. I love the place.
My late mother was born there and attended school in Hull before migrating to Australia. My grandparents met and were married in the city during World War II, where my grandfather was based with the Royal Navy.
My grandmother’s best friend in young adulthood was one of those killed in the German bombing raids on Hull during the war. Nan’s place of work, her street and the nearby train station were all bombed. When a bomb landed near their terrace house on St Luke’s Street, Nan was blown clean down the stairs and had to wear a back brace for a prolonged period.
I’ve undertaken several pilgrimages to Hull over the years and the teams I’ve supported all my life in the English Super League and Premier League Football are Hull FC and Hull Tigers.
If you go to the cemetery in Chanterlands Avenue, Hull, or to the church yard in the tiny village of Hutton Cranswick, north of Hull, you’ll find gravestones of my ancestors, mostly serfs and farmers, that stretch back to the 1500s.
I personally scattered the ashes of my mother, both my grandparents and my much-loved uncle Howard together at a place close to Hull.
I could go on, but again, it’s best not to become too self-involved. The team performance and experience are my main concerns from hereon in.
It’s going to be special for so many reasons.
WHILE WE’RE TALKING HISTORY
In the past few weeks you may have read or heard a few different accounts about the history of rugby league in Brasil, with people saying it has only been around a year or two.
I don’t mind admitting we are ‘greenhorns’ in a sense, but for the purposes of historic accuracy and to avoid the insinuation we’re a transplanted team that has been parachuted into a World Cup, it deserves correcting.
I know myself that when I became involved with promoting and developing rugby league in Brasil in 2013 that there were already people that had come before me.
There had already been a few school teachers and religious missionaries who had taught rugby league in Brasil and arranged fixtures. They used to enjoy watching the NRL on Sports+.
Conrad Ingra, a part-Aboriginal, part-South Sea Islander league enthusiast from Central Queensland, informally taught league in the favelas in 2009. He deserves a documentary.
If you look into rugby union in Brasil, the first club was founded in 1891. We’d be naïve to think there had been zero 13-a-side games played until the 2010s.
Even if that were the case, if you jump on Facebook and search ‘Capital Rugby League’ you will find the page of a precursor club to rugby league in Brasil in Sao Paulo in 2014. I knew the Brazilian-born people behind this, but wasn’t personally involved. They conducted several training sessions, but for a long time, their closest organised rivals were 14 hours away, so they folded and eventually morphed into part of what Brasil Rugby League has become today.
To me, it’s important not to erase or gloss over their contributions.
And one thing I appreciate more and more as I grow older and further investigate the history of rugby league in Australia, is that things were messy, uncoordinated and far from seamless in the early years. We place a level of expectation on developing countries that does not even mirror the reality of our own nation.
MEDIA / TRAINING / SPONSORS / UNIFORMS
As could be expected, it was an appropriately busy week on all fronts, with many positives.
You ride the rollercoaster, where some weeks things don’t go your way, but in others it all seems to fall into place.
Three pieces of media I really enjoyed this week were the interview with Brasil head coach Matt Gardner on Sky Sports, the players responding to the news of the World Cup draw on the IRL media channels, and a Portuguese-language podcast called Mesa Oval (The Oval Table) on website Portal do Rugby.
Mesa Oval was one of our most engaging content pieces all week and it bodes well for future editions.
To go back to a point I made last week, preparing content in languages other than English is a huge area of potential growth for the sport.
I’ve advocated for a number of years that the NRL and broadcast partners should produce a 6-10 minute clip each week of the highlights from every round, dubbed with foreign commentators. This could be run in full and then segmented for more ‘snackable’ content. It’d be a great way to grow the knowledge of clubs and the code in foreign markets.
I think of the way NBA Inside Stuff totally enamoured kids at my school to American basketball in the 1990s and think it’s not a dissimilar proposition.
You get people to develop a stake in the game by aligning them with a particular club, you show the most eye-catching aspects, and you present the personalities, then you suddenly have kids who want to form teams, purchase merchandise or provide impetus for broadcast deals in new markets.
I have supported the San Antonio Spurs since I was 10, have a cupboard full of their gear and, yet, have never set foot in the city. I could tell you which NBA team nearly every boy in my class followed through high school, but would wager most had never visited that city beforehand, even if they have since. I’d also bet that most had zero history of basketball in their family.
We did an audit this week about where all Brasil Rugby League’s fans on social media live. The result was that 76.8 per cent lived in Brasil and that almost the exact same percentage spoke Portuguese as their first language.
I’m going to say even I was surprised by that. I thought the figure might be closer to 50 per cent, with a healthy proportion of English-speaking Australians, Brits, Kiwis and Americans or expats padding out the numbers.
It gives us a nice niche market to work with, especially as Australia is really starting to attract large numbers of Latin American students, which opens the way for sponsor interest (which I can hopefully confirm more about in coming weeks).
If I recall correctly from a few years ago, Spring Hill, one of the closest suburbs to Brisbane City, where rugby league reigns supreme, became the first suburb in Queensland where Spanish was the second-most common language.
The world is changing and we have to change with it.
If you fancy supporting underdogs Brasil on their World Cup journey, it is possible to make a one-off or weekly donation that will go towards the costs of their training camps and warm-up fixtures – or even get your name on their official training shirt. Click here to support Brasil’s women’s team, a team that will consist of approximately 90 per cent domestically-based players.