Written by Robert Burgin
Rugby League may be relatively young in Brasil, but Saturday’s men’s grand final between Urutau and Sāo Paulo embodies some interesting elements for historians of the game.
Here we look at 10 elements that show the world’s fifth-largest nation is quickly creating its own lore and legends in the ‘greatest game of all’.
Coincidentally, this week’s final comes the same week that Brasil officially became the highest-ranked Latin American nation in International Rugby League, overtaking Chile in men’s rankings and maintaining top standing in the continent in women’s standings since 2018.
1. Last week Brasil survived one of its sternest tests in rugby league, when the semi final between São Paulo and Taubaté was held the same weekend as a prestigious rugby union competition, where athletes were paid up to a year’s wages in prizemoney. Despite the obvious incentive to return to union, many dual-code players elected to stick strong with rugby league and prioritise fighting for a place in this year’s showpiece. This included past national representatives.
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2. Aiming for their first title, Sāo Paulo Raiders have their earliest roots in a ‘ghost’ rugby league team which formed in 2013 – but could find nobody to play against and disbanded after 12 months. Capital Rugby League was the first adult male team in Brasil, although some junior teams also existed in far-away locations. Like the Raiders, Capital Rugby League had the club colours of red and black and were based in Sāo Paulo. In fact, Raiders forward leader Caio Ozzioli was part of that seminal group. He was 26 then and is 34 now, eyeing off a long-chased premiership.
3. Between the foundations of Capital Rugby League and today’s Sāo Paulo Raiders, the nation’s largest city had two rugby league teams – Tatuapé and Bandeirantes. The Raiders are effectively a merger of those two identities, after half of the Bandeirantes team returned to rugby union. Interestingly, in rugby union the Bandeirantes club is now linked to historic (and somewhat controversial) English club Saracens and is more commonly known as ‘Saracens Band’.
4. Reigning champions Urutau boast the longest continual involvement in rugby league as the same entity in Brasil. Although other clubs and individuals may have longer links to the 13-man game, the Screaming Owls have not rebranded, merged or switched locations. Their first involvement came in 2017 when noted clubman Arestides Fiamoncini (pictured) was picked to represent Brasil Rugby League in the South American Championships in Chile. Rather fittingly, Fiamoncini wore a South Sydney Rabbitohs jersey for that game after Brasil could not get jerseys made in time and the Rabbitohs supplied replacement kit.
5. The Urutau club causes some confusion because its official name solely refers to its mascot – somewhat similar to the controversial ‘Dolphins’ NRL branding. The word Urutau is not the name of a city. The club itself is based in São José dos Pinhais, Paraná, an industrial city important to the economy, next to the state capital Curitiba. Urutau is a Tupi Indigenous word that refers to a species of owls that look similar to Australia’s tawny frogmouth, have bulging eyes and make blood-curdling screams at night that can sometimes be mistaken for children crying. In nature, Urutaus are often referred to as ‘potoos’, with several variations that inhabit areas from southern Brasil north to Mexico.
6. Touch football played a very big part in the immediate success of Urutau in rugby league. Because the club had been participating in touch competitions prior to tackle, the concepts of playing the ball, six tackles and playing direct and fast came naturally. The touch football competition stems from an enigmatic figure in Brasil – Susi Baxter-Seitz. Besides coaching and managing sports, Baxter-Seitz studied photography in London, has lived in Munich, Germany and Colorado, USA, worked in the media, and follows the fortunes of NRL clubs and Brazilian players with a keen interest.
7. Among those tutored by Baxter-Seitz was Douglas Rauth and the four Domingues brothers, who made up the attacking spine of Urutau in their undefeated 2019 campaign. Douglas Rauth has since gone on to become a chief playmaker for Brasil in international rugby union, having played six Tests. An interesting aside is that, even though Urutau is frequently credited for their attacking prowess, they also have the best all-time defensive record of any rugby league team in Brasil, conceding fewer points per game than any other team.
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8. There is sure to be plenty of feeling when Urutau’s Teco Cursino takes to the field. He was with Sāo Paulo Raiders at the start of the season and won the men’s 9-a-side championship with them. However, his decision to switch clubs for the 13-a-side season caused a stir. Cursino has bulked up significantly this season, perhaps in preparation for facing his former teammates.
9. Grand final day will be done differently in Brasil, with the curtain-raiser to the decider being a third-place playoff between Maringá and Taubaté. Maringá will travel nine hours by bus to contest the bronze medal match – remarkable commitment. Both clubs in this game have shown a wealth of dedication to rugby league and, while having much smaller populations than the teams in the main game, have studied the sport and applied strategies that stand them in good stead for the future. Both clubs were more than competitive with the top two teams this year (Maringá actually beat Urutau to start the season), bringing a more even level to the league than in previous years. Rio de Janeiro was also set to play Umuarama for a fifth-place playoff, but remote Umuarama has opted against sending their squad 1200+ kilometres for the clash and has conceded the result to Rio.
10. Taubaté rookie Alyfer Vinicius led all try-scorers this year with nine tries. He can play prop, second row and centre. His speed, footwork and athleticism has observers labelling him the ‘new face’ of props in Brasil, with the slower, more bulky forwards from rugby union needing to slim down for league’s more explosive style. His clash with Maringá edge forward Fernando Mazon, another frequent tryscorer with a physique similar to Sonny Bill Williams, will be one of the biggest highlights of the day, as will be the clash between playmakers Lucas Viñas Vieira (Maringá) and Yago Moreira (Taubaté), both fantastic passers and kickers of the ball.