Written by Robert Burgin
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.
This week he reveals the surprising story behind Larissa Lima, the only member of the Amazonas’ train-on squad who lives in New Zealand.
FOR Brazilian Larissa Lima, the prospect of securing a place at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup will combine several ‘loves’ in her life – one new love, two further loves that endure, and an old love she hopes to forgive.
The new love is the sport of rugby league, a sport she has played for less than 12 months.
The enduring passions are her partner, professional athlete Sam Henwood, as well as the game they have both played around the world, rugby union.
And the former flame which burnt her badly in the past? It’s actually her home nation, Brasil.
“Brasil was very bad to me at one stage. It made me want to leave,” 26-year-old Lima admits.
“When I was 18 I moved to the capital Brasilia to live with my aunties and try and make the rugby sevens team for the Rio Olympics, but I had a lot of bad things happen in a short space of time.
“So, I moved back to Portugal to be close to Mum, which is where I met Sam, then we decided to move together to New Zealand.”
Originally raised in Patos de Minas, in the State of Minas Gerais, Lima had a transient childhood that saw her move to Europe at age nine, where she grew up in Portugal and Wales.
By the time she returned to Brasil as a young adult, she’d been playing rugby for five years, selected in her first Portuguese national squad at the age of 14.
So accustomed was she with the professional aspects of the sport in Europe, she was rocked by what she encountered on her planned path to the Rio Olympics.
“One of the first games playing rugby union for a club in Brasilia, we had only five people show up to training,” Lima recalls.
“Then the girls grabbed me and took me down to the traffic lights. We put on our uniforms and passed a rugby ball around for show, and we begged people who were stopped at the intersection for money. That was so we could afford the bus to the game that weekend.
“We travelled 16 hours to Rio de Janeiro, had to dress and strap ourselves on the bus, and arrived at 11.28am for an 11.30am kick-off. My warm-up was running from the bus onto the field.
“After that, we got on the bus and travelled all the way home. I thought to myself ‘Why would anybody do this?’.
“Following that experience I switched to a better club in Goiania, and I was told the national coach would be at my next game.
“In the first five minutes of that game I did my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). When I went to the hospital, they tried to say nothing was wrong, but I asked them to do an MRI. They told me they couldn’t because their machine was broken. Remember, this is a hospital.
“Eventually, I got told I could get the scans done privately for 2000 Reais (Brazilian currency). I was 18, had no money, and the club didn’t have insurance that would cover me for the reconstruction.
“My grandfather actually had to sell some of his cows so I could afford the surgery.
“It was a terrible time and I just wanted to get out.”
Fast forward to today and Lima lives a world away, residing south of Auckland in New Zealand where she plays league for Papakura and union for Counties Manukau.
Former Super Rugby athlete and partner Sam is currently playing professionally in Japan and, due to COVID, they have not seen each other since February.
At present, Lima is one of only a handful of players from outside Brasil’s domestic competition in contention for a place in the Amazonas team at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
She has two important allies close to hand – Warriors NRLW legend Hilda Mariu and 10-year NRL player Blake Ayshford.
“I play alongside Hilda at Papakura and she has become my favourite rugby league player. She turns 37 soon, but still looks like she’s in her twenties,” says Lima, currently studying oral health at university.
“I have watched every single women’s game I can find between New Zealand and Australia, because I want to learn as much as I can.
“Hilda told me that when I first turned up to training she was thinking ‘Here we go. One more union girl who thinks she knows it all’.
“Then I pulled off a couple of big tackles and she was like ‘Whoa. I think we can be friends’.”
Traditionally a flanker in union, Lima initially struggled to find her best position in league.
The contact-loving Latina says she played three positions in her first rugby league game – wing, second row and lock – and that the 10 minutes on the wing “was the worst time of my life”.
However, she has since been groomed as a centre, with club assistant coach Ayshford able to lend the benefits of his top-level experience.
Now speaking with a noticeable Kiwi twang, Lima has to pause a minute when teammates ask her where she is from. After all, there are very few Brazilians playing league on the western side of the Pacific.
“People in New Zealand have asked me how long it takes to drive from Portugal to Brasil. But then again, people in Brasil ask me whereabouts in Australia is New Zealand and what language we speak,” Lima laughs.
“I don’t judge though. I’ve lived a pretty crazy life.
“My next goal is all about helping Brasil Rugby League. A lot of people don’t even know we play. My club coaches didn’t realise we were in the World Cup.
“I want to be the best I can be.”
While separated from her Amazonas teammates by several thousand kilometres at this point in time, Lima does have pre-existing friendships with several other players in the squad.
Among those is leadership contender Karina Araujo, who was present at the same game eight years ago when Lima suffered her knee injury, and who kept in touch to track her progress thereafter.
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.