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My first rugby league: Robert Burgin

22 Apr 20, 6:12PM 0 Comments

Written by Stuart McLennan

Robert Burgin has devoted much of his life to rugby league. The Director/Co- Founder of Latin Heat RL and manager of the Brasil women’s 2021 World Cup team is dedicated to taking the ‘greatest game of all’ to new territories.

Robert worked for many years as a journalist at Rugby League Week. He released his first book Poolhall – Jail – Library under the pseudonym of Loxton Berg last year and is looking forward to launching his latest book Maroon Mentality in June this year to coincide with the 40- year anniversary of State of Origin.

First time I saw rugby league

The first time I ‘thought’ I watched a league game was when I was either three or four and I walked past Downlands College in Toowoomba with my Mum. It was quite a contrast, as we lived in a notoriously poor part of Toowoomba (Harlaxton) and Downlands was a private college only a few hundred metres up the road. As best as I can figure out, it was Downlands playing Toowoomba Grammar that day, and it was most likely rugby union. But I was convinced I had just watched the mighty Toowoomba Clydesdales play (Grammar wore similar colours to the Clydesdales) and I began wearing a generic blue-and-yellow striped top around and saying I wanted to become a Clydesdale. So I clearly had some concept of what rugby league was by then, albeit misguided.

However, the first game that I can vividly recall (and that was certifiably rugby league) was a televised State League game between Wynnum Manly and Ipswich a year or two later that I watched in the lounge room of my grandparents’ home. That was when most of the State League clubs had the Colonel Sanders insignia on the front of their jerseys. Gene Miles scored three tries and kicked a goal from the sideline. I decided at that point Geno was my favourite player and idolised him for the next decade of my life.

First I time I played rugby league

Despite the above story, I was more of a soccer kid until I was around 10. Most of my family is English-born and went through Grange Thistle soccer club. To that extent, all my earliest games of rugby league were just informal neighbourhood games. I used to have a hard plastic ball that doubled as a moneybox, and we used that. When I was 8 we moved to a house where the lady over the back fence was the grandmother of Rob Brough (Family Feud host, and multiple premiership winning rugby league coach with Kawana Dolphins and Souths Logan women’s teams). All her grandkids would come over and play. One of those kids was Robbie Jenkins, who played in the same Aspley Devils team as Brad Thorn, and I believe Robbie made several rep teams as a kid (I know, three Roberts in this story makes it pretty confusing). He was three years older and very competitive, so I wanted to get as good as him.

I began playing league for my school Stafford Heights State School, and would take multiple changes of clothes to school each day, so I could play before first bell, at lunch, and after the final bell. I was a quick kid, but couldn’t hold on to the ball even when I was in the clear and that let me down a lot. My parents were not sporty people at all and we butted heads over my growing fanaticism for league frequently. They refused to let me join a club for many years as they wanted me to focus on school. When I was 14 I finally nagged them enough to let me join Wests Mitchelton Panthers, which several of my schoolmates played for. Funnily enough, Robbie Jenkins ended up becoming an actor and I was the one who stuck with rugby league. I went from one of the last kids picked in primary school football to captain of my high school team, Everton Park State High.

Rugby League, NRL, Robert Burgin.

First team I followed

I quickly jumped from Toowoomba Clydesdales to Wynnum Manly, then to Wests Panthers in the QRL competitions. We moved around a lot as kids, like every six months. But once I was settled in Wests Panthers territory as an 8-year-old, I began following them until this day. I did follow the Manly Sea Eagles and then the Brisbane Broncos when they entered the NSWRL competition, but I am much more ardent and passionate in my support of Wests Panthers. It means more to me. I also have a very strong sense of connection to Hull FC, due to family ties to the area.

First player of any era I would pick in my dream team

Because I love the history of the game and want to learn more about it, I’d say Duncan Thompson. I’ve been very fortunate to meet many of the post-War icons of the sport through work, but I do lament that disconnection with the game’s early years. Having that link to Toowoomba and the Darling Downs, it fascinates me what Thompson and his teams were able to achieve, not only in terms of on field success, but solidifying the popularity of the sport and living their daily lives amid all the challenges of the time.

First non Tier 1 country I would you like to see win the World Cup

Being selfish, I’d say Brasil’s women’s team, which I’m involved with. There’s 700 million Latin Americans around the world, and the opportunity to create a wildfire of interest in the game excites me. Brasil is a country of passion, expression and overcoming struggles – perfect for rugby league. The 2021 World Cup is a chance to dispel several stereotypes about Brasil and Latin America as a whole. Brasil is the fifth-largest country in terms of size, the sixth-largest population, a G20 nation and has one of the biggest economies in the world. It’s also incredibly diverse and arguably more seamlessly multicultural than anywhere I’ve ever been. There’s a fairly common perception from people who’ve never visited that all Brasilians come from the favelas, have brown skin and brown hair, live a certain way, and that their country is unsafe and dirt-poor. Rugby league is a great vehicle to open people’s eyes and serve as a conduit for national pride.

First thing I would change in rugby league

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I believe all major rugby league bodies need a sponsorship manager who grows the investment into the game at ALL levels. They should be in the first two appointments made. Without a solid pot of funding that makes the game sustainable from the grassroots to international level, we will always live a tenuous existence, and one that is dictated by the few pockets that do have money, rather than the game’s best interests as a whole. We can have all the development plans and personnel we want, all these great competitions and ideas, but without the funding trickling through from third-party investors, we all fight over two-thirds of nothing. Responsible sponsorship sourcing at every level removes the self-interest, desperation and the unfair strain we place on volunteers. We will always need volunteers, but the model at the moment dictates the mums and dads being paid nothing work 5 times as hard as the people at the head of the game. And a major reason for that is they are always chasing their tail for money for uniforms, insurances, equipment and facilities.

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