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Marooned State: Growth sport

Tony Webeck, Chief Queensland Correspondent NRL.com Sun, Jan 19, 2014 - 9:00 AM

Was a Philippines-Latin Heat game a major step for rugby league internationally? Copyright: Tony Webeck

In the first of a regular weekly column, Chief Queensland Correspondent Tony Webeck unveils what's happening in rugby league in the Sunshine State.

Despite the best of intentions, a meeting of two rugby league minnows was never going to be a good game of rugby league. What it was, though, was a game that was good for rugby league.

In the wake of a Rugby League World Cup that introduced the United States of America and Italy to the greater rugby league-playing public, the Philippines playing the Latin Heat on a Gold Coast Saturday night in January could at best have hoped to attract the curious types eager to witness something from sideshow alley.

What happened instead were two very different yet equally exuberant cultures sharing a rugby league experience that could have massive ramifications for the game's future.

People of Latin American extraction account for 600 million of the world's population: What if some of them fell in love with rugby league?

This is the third year that the Philippines have had a national rugby league team and they can already lay claim to two Asian Cup victories (lopsided wins over Thailand in 2012 and 2013): What if the game took a foothold in Asia?

There will be many who insist rugby league's spiritual home is in Sydney's inner suburbs and that expansion only belongs in discussions about waistlines but if there was ever a time to explore what might be possible, now would seem to be that time.

That there are any Latinos in Australia playing rugby league at all is down to one man, Robert Burgin, but the game at the international level needs to recognise there are barriers that can be broken down with vision and perseverance.

If they had sat in the stands at Runaway Bay Sports Complex they would have seen hundreds of people of Asian and Latino extraction passionately and noisily supporting their respective teams. My suspicion would be that the majority of these people would never have been to an NRL game, but that's not to say they won't in future.

The loudspeaker in the grandstand alternated between Glenn Frey singing "The Heat Is On" and Los Lobos belting out "La Bamba" but as the Heat took to the field for the second half trailing 54-0, three young Latino girls – the eldest of whom would have been no more than 10 years of age – took over with a boisterous chant of, "Let's go Latino, let's go."

On the field, the Philippines – minus NRL stars such as Matt Srama and Kevin Gordon – showed that a World Cup debut in 2017 as the representatives from Asia is not confined to pipe dreams and wishful thinking.

Given they were playing a team who had never competed in an 80-minute game before, the Philippines players showed enough skill and speed to suggest that in the next three years they could put a competitive international side together.

The Tamaraws will enter four teams in the Cabramatta International 9s starting on February 1 while the Latin Heat will enter for the first time and Philippines captain Luke Srama is fully supportive of the latest international flavour added to the game.

"It's a huge thing for rugby league internationally with South America kicking off in the 13-man-a-side game and for us as well to get more international games. It's good exposure for both teams and hopefully more games get played for both countries and development," Srama said.

"Hearing from the start of the game to the end of the game all the Latin Heat supporters clapping and yelling and the Filipino supporters also clapping the Latin Heat, rugby league is the winner. That's the good thing about rugby league, it's one big community."

At the completion of the game the two sides came together in a show of support and to also be joined together in prayer.

"The only thing you can't teach in rugby league is heart and you guys played with plenty of heart tonight," said a member of the Philippines team of their opposition. It was a sentiment shared by Latin Heat captain Jonathan Espinoza.

"Even though we lost we showed a lot of heart and that's what the game's all about," he said.

"The thing about a Latino is that we never give up. We start from the bottom but we always push ourselves up and great things are only going to come from this."

Those great things will take time but it has been said on many occasions that the greatest journeys start with a single step.

That first step has now been taken, it's what we do next that will determine rugby league's place in sport's global landscape.

And for those who have to know, the Philippines took the Magellan Trophy with a 116-0 win that was too much for the scoreboard to cope with but will nonetheless go down as a history-making occasion.