Latinos who love following the National Rugby League (NRL) are no longer an oddity.
While the South and Central American community has an inherited love of football, it seems more and more Latinos are also willing to express their passion for a game popularised by Aussies.
Next year that interest will go to another level, with Latin American Rugby League fielding a team at the 2017 Emerging Nations World Championship.
To be held next November in Sydney, the event will mark the first time a Latin American team has appeared at a rugby league tournament of such global size and significance.
The team representing Latin America is known as the Latin Heat, and they have been operating since 2013 to provide people a previously unavailable opportunity to represent their heritage in the sport.
“We started out with three players in July of 2013 and now we have more than 200 players,” co-founder Robert Burgin said.
“We’re not trying to compete with any other sport – most of our players play multiple sports – and we are 100 per cent non-profit, so what we do is for a love of rugby league and the community.
“Many of our players tell a similar story of being too afraid in the past to admit they loved rugby league, because their parents and friends all followed football since birth.
“But now they’ve come together, the numbers have just boomed and it’s become its own sub-culture in a way.”
To date the Latin Heat has had some fairly encouraging victories.
They have beaten Thailand and Japan’s international representative sides, and also been winners in a passionate match against rivals Portugal.
The Heat has also played some emerging powers in the sport such as American Samoa, USA, Canada, Greece and Malta.
For the majority of international games, the team plays as a composite Latino side – representing 24 nationalities from Mexico down to Chile and Argentina.
But such has the rapid growth been, that the organisation is now supporting stand-alone teams from countries such as Chile, El Salvador, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador.
“When we commenced, I really did think that the team would be dominated by Argentinians, because of their strength in the other rugby code, rugby union,” Mr Burgin said.
“However that has not been the case at all, and in fact Chile is currently the Latino nationality with the greatest strength in rugby league.”
In both 2015 and 2016 the Chilean side was champion in a mini-tournament known as the GYG Latino Nines, so named because of a long-standing sponsorship of the organisation from Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taquerias.
Other Aussie businesses with Latino roots have also come out in support, including SHIELD Security (run by Peruvian Sean Day-Olarte) and Tattoo Tears (run by Uruguayan Moldi Zeballos).
As well as striking a chord with the Australian-based Latino community, the Latin Heat Rugby League concept has also spread internationally.
As recently as November they helped coordinate a tournament in Miramar, Argentina, sent equipment to Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, and have started Latino teams in the USA and UK.
“This began as a dream and now it’s spreading all around the world,” Mr Burgin said.
“The team has helped changed people’s perceptions of Latinos, perceptions of the sport, and drawn attention to some issues for the community that are really important.
“We see ourselves as not just an athletic team, but also a gateway to meeting lifelong friends, helping people’s employment prospects, language skills, fitness and character development.”
The Latin Heat squad is already training in earnest for several events coming soon in the New Year, including:
January 28 – International Rugby League Nines at Cabramatta, Sydney
February 4 – Gala day featuring Uruguay v Hungary, El Salvador v Thailand, Chile v Africa United, Ecuador v Peru, Latina Females v Philippines, Latino Boys v Middle East at Liverpool, Sydney
June 10 – New South Wales Latino v Queensland Latino, held in Brisbane
November 1 – Emerging Nations World Championship, held in western Sydney.
If you would like to be involved as either a player, official or supporter you can email Play@LatinHeatRL.com
The team also has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/LatinAmericanRugbyLeague and an online store where all proceeds go towards developing the game for Latin American communities.
Photos credit: Sergio Montenegro