Written by Keith Whitelock
Every once in a while Everything Rugby League comes across people who blow your mind with their love of the game. The time, the personal funds and the mental toughness it takes to start a sport in a different country where almost no one has ever even hear of “rugby league” is truly inspiring. Imagine trying to start a sport from scratch. Where do you start? Schools? Rugby Union participants? Corporate sponsors? Who knows?
This was the challenge Jamaica Rugby League faced in 2004. There’s often a disconnect when we think of organization by name, not people. Make no mistake, Jamaica Rugby League are people and qualifying for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup is the work of blood, sweat and tears.
I first heard of Jamaica’s Romeo Monteith around 10 years ago. I remember thinking, “geez, this guy’s committed” when I heard about his plans to introduce a development academy called “Hurricanes Rugby League” to help develop the natural athleticism and love of sport of Jamaican locals into competitive Rugby League teams. The Hurricanes program looked to be succeeding as locals signed up in encouraging numbers. Unfortunately, Jamaica Rugby League experienced what so many other developing rugby league nations go through; the equation that a lack of funds equals an incredibly difficult task to maintain or even prevent progress from going backwards.
“The Hurricanes program is a bit stagnant as we have no funding for it. We had to stop the academy and the seniors last played in 2016 when BARLA (British Amateur Rugby League Association)” says Romeo Monteith.
Jamaica currently has a group numbering in the hundreds of young men and boys who are registered rugby league players. Due to a lack of resources, they play on dangerously hard pitches which illustrates thier love rugby league so much. Romeo believes the recent 2021 World Cup qualification is for them.
“It means the world to the hundreds of kids and young men without a rugby league field back in Jamaica, playing on rock hard and stone filled pitches week in and week out. All the kids who get banned from using the soccer pitches, who today, witnessed their country men do something that will stay with them for a lifetime. All the volunteers like former national player Nicholas Wright who drove 15 hours from Texas just to give a helping hand because he knew we have no help on the ground. It means the world to all of us”.
Jamaica came up against Canada, USA and newcomers Chile in the World Cup Qualifiers. On paper, they were the third most favored team in this tournament. The players were having none of that though, beating Canada convincingly 38-8 and holding on to beat USA 16-10 in Florida. Due to a lack of funds, players volunteered to pay their own way, at a cost of thousands of dollars.
“It means a great deal for all the people have sacrificed so much since 2004 and all the boys who funded their own way to represent their country and families today. All of us who were laughed at and ridiculed and told we were wasting our time”.
As a sport, we need to get to a stage where countries like Jamaica no longer have situations where players spend their hard-earned savings just to represent their countries. A good start would be to divert some of the prize money the top countries get for winning the World Cup into equal “appearance fees” for all countries. This is a story for another day though.
The benefit of the World Cup still being 3 years away is Jamaica have time to raise money for sponsorship and continue to develop eligible players.
“2021 is some way off, we’ve got time to prepare and proudly represent our country and the Americas” says Romeo.
Step 1 is to convince authorities to dedicate a locate pitch for Rugby league Players to practice and train on. Being able to say the team will be playing at some of the biggest stadiums in England will hopefully help with this.
“We want the sport to grow on the island and in the Caribbean. We want at least one rugby league pitch in Kingston to give our kids the opportunity to play rugby league safely. We want sponsors to come on board and help us be the best we can be in 2021. I think Jamaica will be everyone’s second favorite team so I’d like to see some tangible support for growing the National Team and the grass root program on the island. Paul Morris who was one of our founders told us we would go to the world cup. He died a few years back, but I think he is smiling in heaven right now. we did it!”
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