Four-try hero Kevin McKenzie (centre) with Latin Heat debutants Michael and Alvaro Alarcon after their win over Thailand last weekend.

South America emerges as international force

An ambitious decision to introduce rugby league to young men of Latin American descent has put the game on the verge of untold opportunities ahead of the Cabramatta International Nines in Sydney next week.

Preparing for the ninth staging of the Cabramatta Nines, teams representing nations from across the planet and throughout Australia will converge on western Sydney to play over the weekend of January 30-31. 

Two years after the Latin Heat made their debut at Cabramatta such has been the growth in interest that for the first time teams made up completely of players hailing from Chile and El Salvador will take part in addition to the Latin Heat team consisting of players representing the 22 other Central and South American nations.

The ability of Chile and El Salvador to field stand-alone teams actually puts the future of the Latin Heat concept in some doubt, but that is exactly how the man behind the team wanted his passion project to evolve all along.

Robert Burgin saw the interest in rugby league when travelling through Brazil in 2012 and is thrilled to see the development reach the stage where individual Central and South American nations can now field their own teams.

"We will support individual Chile and El Salvador teams at the International Rugby League Nines, along with a combined team representing the other 22 nations of South and Central America,” said Burgin, who serves as the president of the Latin Heat.

"Beyond that we feel 2016 is the right year for the first full-blooded 17-a-side game between two Latino nations… possibly multiple nations.

"Chile, El Salvador and Peru have the best depth of Australian-trained players, while Argentina and Mexico are playing and conducting development work domestically.

"These are the most likely nations to emerge first, though you cannot discount Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador, all of which have taken initial steps.

"As these nations come into being in their own right, it would stand to reason there will be less need for players to pull together under the Latin Heat banner.

"But for now, it's a very enjoyable adventure for us all."

Spirits are high in the Latin Heat camp heading towards Cabramatta after they recorded their most significant win to date, a 54-16 thumping of the Thailand Stars in Canberra last weekend.

The match was attended by diplomats from Chile, Uruguay, Mexico and Ecuador but it was a man of Guyanese heritage who stole the show, Kevin McKenzie scoring four tries against the Thai team including one blockbusting run to the try-line that drew comparisons with great All Black winger Jonah Lomu.

James Horvat was making his debut for the Latin Heat and scored three tries and kicked three goals while Jye Sommers, in his final game for the Heat, led the way up front along with Canberra-based Chilean prop Eduardo Wegener.

Despite their proud history in rugby union Argentina were initially reluctant to accept rugby league but have recently expressed great interest in getting involved.

They and Mexico have been invited by the Rugby League International Federation to send teams to the 2017 Universities World Cup and Burgin is adamant that support must be forthcoming to foster their interest.

"The real boom place at the moment regarding development in South America is Argentina," Burgin said.

"It took a while for them to catch on compared to the initial interest we had from Chile, Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico but I went and saw their president Carlos Varela over December and he has attracted a lot of interest in the sport and is in the process of filing for RLIF membership status. 

"I know he is speaking with Canada Rugby League about trying to get them to tour, but as with everything in international rugby league, money is hard to come by to make this happen.

 "Both Argentina and Mexico have an invite from the RLIF to send teams to the 2017 Universities World Cup, which they are super pumped about, but money for flights will be the big issue again."