Written by Robert Burgin
Photo by Bruno Ruas
IT’S now approximately 70 weeks until the opening match of the 2021 Women’s Rugby League World Cup, a fixture that will feature the team I’m managing – newcomers Brasil – against hosts England.
It’s an unprecedented appearance by a Latin American team at rugby league’s showpiece global event.
I thought I’d start a weekly blog up until the tournament kicks off to provide everybody an insight into this special experience, and the extraordinary group of players and staff who I’ll be joining for the journey.
Up until a few years ago I was much the same as anybody likely to be reading this article – a passionate enthusiast who wanted to see rugby league grow.
People always ask me how I managed to get involved with Brazilian Rugby League, and there are lots of obtuse and nuanced ways to answer that question from a personal, cultural and professional perspective.
Yet, I often feel the experience that most directly led me down this path was one that is probably extremely relatable to others.
At one stage I became borderline addicted to sports simulation games, in particular to complex soccer management titles, where you could control every minute detail of a club’s operations.
While a lot of my friends would be obsessed with sports actions games – where they could kick the winning goal, score the winning try, throw the winning touchdown pass etc – I was more enraptured with being able to finalise sponsorship deals, set ticket prices, handle media relations and assess player capabilities.
I can still walk over to the cupboard in the corner of my room and slide open a drawer which has countless editions of Football Manager and FIFA Manager stacked on top of each other, all now gathering dust.
It was this experience of spending waaaaay too many hours managing make-believe teams in major competitions on my computer screen that convinced me I needed to go into the real world and replicate this passion with real players in real stadiums playing real fixtures.
The shortest way to answer how that opportunity came about with Brasil is that I’d envisioned an opportunity to grow the game in Latin America as a child, had that belief later cemented in my media career, I travelled the continent extensively, and fell in love with the vibe and the people of Latin America – including my wife.
I’m now into my eighth year of being directly involved with Latin American Rugby League operations.
The neat segue between my computer game addiction and where I currently find myself is that I’ve always liked to control an underdog team. If I was playing Football Manager, I’d find the poorest club in Danish Second Division or Mexican Third Division and try and build a dynasty with them.
We’re coming off a similar base with Brasil Rugby League. It’s only through innovation, determined talent identification, smart marketing, financial efficiency and building partnerships that we will get ahead.
It’s a challenge I’m honoured to be a part of, and one that I am loving.
So, what can I tell you about what has been happening recently behind the scenes of Brasil Rugby League – the first in these 70 weekly updates?
Everybody wants to know how COVID has been impacting team preparations for the World Cup. With Brasil being one of the worst-hit nations, we’re right in the eye of the hurricane. Unfortunately, our head coach Matt Gardner, a former Super League player whose mother was born in Brasil, has already lost an aunt to the pandemic. My wife, who is from a smaller town (by Brazilian standards) of 35,000 people in the west of the country, knows two teenage girls who have died of respiratory illnesses in recent months. Brasil Rugby League’s Chief Operating Officer, the tireless Hugo Froes, has been highly concerned for his father, who is terminally ill and particularly susceptible to contracting the condition. We’ve seen reports in the last 48 hours that the nation’s president has now tested positive to COVID. We cannot deny that the pandemic has hit the nation hard, but human beings are resilient and they adapt. The people of Brasil have survived many historic challenges and yet always persevered.
With many cities in full lockdown, physical testing of players has been a double-edged sword. A lack of access to gyms for many players is definitely a challenge, however at the same time it means players are looking for activity to spice up their week. We’ve already been sent some impressive, and also humorous, videos of the ingenious ways players are sticking to their strength and fitness regimes. A few of them may need a handyman around when the pandemic is over to fix their walls and doorstops!
COVID really took the wind from our sails on a number of fronts regarding team sponsorship. We were all excited to be progressing nicely through negotiations with a major player in the travel industry at the start of the year. Even in the first few weeks of COVID, we never envisaged the problem would grow as big as it has, effectively decimating that particular industry. We’d also spent significant time talking to government trade departments and other institutions with international clientele, like universities, however restrictions on passenger movement have put a dent in that also. One grant scheme we spent weeks preparing a submission for was completely cancelled, while another has been delayed indefinitely. The challenge for Brasil Rugby League, at this point in time, is that most companies who know the value of exposure at a Rugby League World Cup are not located inside Brasil. Yet, even when you tell an Australian company that one in four Aussies watched the 2017 World Cup, they can’t always see the value or connection in sponsoring a foreign nation. We know there is value there, we still have plenty of potential partners targeted, and most importantly – we never give up. On the positive side of the ledger, being named to feature in the opening game of the tournament in Leeds, and confirmation that all Brasil’s games will be broadcast worldwide are two massive bonuses.
After the initial flurry of excitement when Brasil was announced as a participant in 2021, things have quietened down a little. However, it was interesting to see one article this week when Fiji Women’s head coach Adrian Vowles, who is a long-time personal friend, was still expressing disbelief Brasil was given an opportunity at the World Cup ahead of his team. I can understand his frustration, and have stated several times I wish the Women’s World Cup was a 12-team format, but there’s a couple of salient points that need to be made. One is about the timeframes that qualifying games were played in. Brasil beat previously undefeated Argentina 48-0 in December of 2018, while Fiji didn’t play its first women’s international until weeks before the World Cup contestants were announced, by when all preparations were finalised. The other aspects to consider are the off-field processes and criteria required for application. From an administrative perspective, Hugo Froes was very intelligent with the way he positioned Brasil for a tilt at the Women’s World Cup in particular. At the end of the day, Fiji with a population of one million people, will still contest the men’s tournament, while Brasil with a population of 210 million people, also has the chance to promote the sport to one of the world’s largest consumer and corporate audiences – along with those of neighbouring Latin American nations.
If you fancy having a stake in 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.