Rugby league officials are hoping the emergence of teenage Brisbane prop Payne Haas will entice more Asians to take up the game in Australia and overseas.
Haas, who made a stunning NRL debut against South Sydney last month but is now sidelined with a shoulder injury, has already represented the Philippines at under 16s level and has told Tamaraws officials he wants to play in the end-of-season Emerging Nations World Championship in Sydney.
The rise of the 18-year-old sensation, whose father Gregor is Filipino-Swiss, has coincided with ARLC chairman Peter Beattie’s call at the start of the season for the game to encourage "more Australians of an Asian background" to play rugby league.
Shaun Johnson, whose mother, Say, and brother, Topo, fled Laos in 1980, is the highest-profile NRL player of Asian heritage, while Warriors teammates Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Mason Lino have Chinese ancestry.
Several recent initiatives and developments, coupled with anecdotal evidence at grassroots level, suggest an increase in interest and participation among the Asian community, including:
- A rise in the number of players of Asian heritage in junior representative and local competitions, including Manly’s Harold Matthews Cup hooker Gordon Chan Kum Tong and his brother Jonathan, who plays for South Sydney;
- The amalgamation between the NRL and Touch Football Australia, a sport which is very popular among the Asian community that there are teams representing different nationalities, while Touch Football Australia Hall of Fame inductee, David Cheung, is of Chinese heritage;
- The establishment of NRL Asia and the Association of South-East Asian Nations Rugby League, which had its first board meeting at NSWRL headquarters last month and has appointed Brian Smith as director of coaching;
- The formation of a Southern Dragon Boats for players of Asian heritage, who competed at the recent Coogee Nines and plan to play in regular tournaments;
- A 2014 Canterbury Bulldogs survey revealed four per cent growth in the number of supporters of Asian heritage.
However, Haas could have the greatest impact as the face of rugby league for the Asian community in Australia and throughout the ASEAN region, which is estimated to have a population of 720 million by 2020.
Former Gold Coast hooker Matt Srama, who is of Filipino heritage and played in the country’s first Test in 2012, said the success of Haas would generate interest in the game among people of Asian heritage.
"It’s amazing what a bit of exposure can do," said Srama, who along with former Gold Coast team-mate and fellow Philippines representative Kevin Gordon, presented Haas with his first Tamaraws jersey in 2015.
"Once you get a few high-profile players you see more and more people want to get involved so it is really exciting for the Philippines and players of Asian heritage. If he does well it will attract interest from any Filipino who follows sport."
Philippines National Rugby League vice-president Paul Sheedy, a former Melbourne Storm player of Filipino heritage, said Haas could have a huge impact for the game and he hoped the prop would again play for the Tamaraws at the Emerging Nations World Championships in Sydney later this year.
"We’d love to have him on board and when we spoke to him over Christmas he was very excited to play, but it is going to come down to the Broncos," Sheedy said.
"He would be a major drawcard ,,, and for Payne to do it would help to put us in the thoughts of government officials in the Philippines, who have the power of recognising us as a sport over there."
Besides Johnson, former South Sydney and Sydney Roosters utility Craig Wing is arguably the best-known player of Asian heritage and is one of 10 players of Filipino heritage to play in the NRL, while St George Illawarra performance analyst Marc Leabres is also Filipino.
There is a growing number of Asian players coming through the junior representative ranks, including the Chan Kum Tong brothers.
ASEAN coach Ross Hoye, who is North Sydney Harold Mathews Cup assistant coach, said there were three players of Asian heritage in the under 16s team, while Canterbury have two players in their Jersey Flegg and women’s teams and nine in their junior district clubs.
Hoye also coaches Berowra Wallabies, who have five players of Asian heritage in their A-Grade team.
"We’ve always had a good Asian mixture, not all from one country, but it has definitely grown and the guys are fair footy players as well so that is enticing other players of Asian heritage to come and play," Hoye said.
Touch, Tag and Nines
A lot of players of Asian heritage are being attracted to rugby league through other versions of the game.
"The growth has been huge," said Cheung. "I know that over in the northern suburbs [of Sydney] there are four or five Chinese teams.
"When I started playing there was only me and my brothers, really. Then a couple of others came along, who turned out to be good players and there have been a few Chinese players who have gone on to represent Australia in touch."
The growth has been so great that the Sydney-based Vietnam OzTag Association was formed in 2013 and now has more than 500 players trialling to represent Team Vietnam at international level.
"Fairfield Oztag is dominated by players of Asian-heritage, and has approximately 2450 players across the week," Vietnam OzTag Association president Frankie Nguyen said.
"We believe it is popular in the Vietnamese community as some players who do not believe they have the skill or physique to play rugby league can turn to Oztag."
The Southern Dragon Boats concept was developed by twins Daniel and Damien Nicholls, who are of Thai heritage, as a multi-cultural team to compete in Nines tournaments, both in Australia and Asia.
NRL Asia and ASEAN RL
The board of the newly formed ASEAN RL Association had its first meeting in Sydney last month and involved representatives of the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, Hong Kong and India.
The main focus is to enable the nations to pool resources to drive development of the game across the region. Teams play under the NRL Asia logo to avoid confusion with rugby union.
NRL Asia recently partnered with Global Alms, an Australian-based charity which provides support to the victims of people smuggling and is involved in the rescue of children from the slave trade.