The story of Chile’s historic appearance at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup qualifiers is one of surprise after surprise.
It’s also a little bit of a history, demography and geography lesson for those who have no idea how one of the world’s southernmost countries could emerge on the cusp of the elite tier.
When Latin American Rugby League was rejuvenated around 2013, Chile was not even among the first five nationalities that officials expected to immediately succeed.
“It seems foolish in hindsight, but when we started gathering interested players, our earliest thought was that Argentina and Uruguay would lead the way from the outset because of their strong rugby union background,” Latin American Rugby League co-founder Robert Burgin said.
“Then we thought Brazil might succeed because of their enormous population, or perhaps Guyana because they had success in sevens rugby and had naturally powerful physiques.
“Around that time there was also a core group of super enthusiastic Colombians that came across and they made up around 50 per cent of our players, so there were also expectations there.
“Even 12 months after the sport started a concerted effort to engage people from Central and South America, it still wasn’t clear how dominant Chile would emerge in the region.”
Chile’s dominance is underpinned by an unbeaten record in 13-a-side rugby league against all other comers from Latin America in the past three years.
In that same period they have also only been beaten once in 9-a-side rugby league, losing the final of a 2016 tournament in Miramar, Argentina to the host nation.
So how did a country that has never been a leading regional force in rugby union become more rapidly successful in league?
Much has to do with the Chilean military coup d’etat of 1973 and the dictatorial reign of Augusto Pinochet from 1974 to 1990.
The number of people who were imprisoned, tortured or executed is claimed by some to stretch to nearly 100,000.
While you still find those who feel strongly for both sides of the politics involved, the fact is this period saw many Chilenos flee for Australia, either as refugees or who anticipated difficulties and left in advance.
By the early-mid 1980s there were 20,000 Chilenos living in Australia, most settling on the eastern seaboard where rugby league was the dominant winter sport.
Among the families which came to settle in Australia was that of Ernesto ‘Ernie’ Tobar, who later went on to become a fearless lower grade player with the Penrith Panthers.
When Latin American Rugby League began creating momentum five years ago, Tobar was a central figure and was the first Latin American-born coach of the organisation.
Another family which migrated around the same time was that of Rodrigo ‘Rod’ Millar, who at first played country rugby league throughout Australia and is now one of the directors and head coach of the Chilean Weichafes.
Interestingly, the sons of Ernesto and Rodrigo – Brandon Tobar, Brad Millar and Trent Millar – are all central players in the unprecedented quest to get Chile to rugby league’s biggest tournament.
At first there was a common theme whenever you would encounter a rugby league player of Chilean heritage: They all thought they were the only one that existed.
But soon they realised there were, in fact, more and more Chilenos educated in the sport than one could ever anticipate.
That interest then spread back to their homeland, with Rodrigo Millar returning to Chile several times per year to help encourage a dedicated core of domestic players around the southern city of Los Angeles.
Two domestic officials who have been absolutely tireless in their work for the sport have been Guillermo Artiaga and Ronald Soto Badilla, helping it then to spread 2000km along the elongated nation to Antofagasta in the north.
Pioneering player Jonathan Espinoza also conducted two development tours in successive seasons, helping to engage schools, media and distributing several hundred kilograms of jerseys, boots and equipment.
Chile now has in excess of a dozen teams, holds a representative match between its northern and southern regions, and has a strong interest in women’s rugby league.
Some other factors which have aided the spread of rugby league in Chile compared to its neighbours are perhaps only apparent to those with intricate knowledge of the country.
Chile has a significant Polynesian community, numbering around 6000 of their 18 million total population.
As a proud seafaring nation and the administrative power for Easter Island (Rapa Nui), it taps into cultures that may not be immediately associated with South America.
Within the Chilean squad are players with mixed heritage from Samoa and the Cook Islands, as well as Melanesian influences from Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
The most famous rugby league player of Chilean descent, Marcelo Montoya of the Canterbury Bulldogs, is of course also of shared Fijian heritage.
Geographically, Chile shares many of the same weather patterns, seasons and regional interests as many of rugby league’s top 10 nations.
It is the only South American nation which offers direct flights into Australia, and has linked mining and resources industries, ensuring a steady flow of rugby league fans back-and-forth across the Pacific.
Outside of the coup d’etat, Chile is also considered the most stable Latin American nation of the past century, which enables firm foundations and consistent headway to be made in establishing rugby league’s presence.
The University of North Florida, Jacksonville, will stage two Rugby League World Cup qualifier rounds on 13th and 17th November 2018, and in the opening fixtures the South American newcomers take on hosts USA, the winners facing either Jamaica or Canada.
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