One of the most influential figures in encouraging Latin Americans to play rugby league will make a return to the sport for this weekend’s Colombian State of Origin game – 15,000km and four years on from when he last played.
Bogota native Fernando Villegas was among just three players to attend the first training session for the GYG Latin Heat when it was founded in 2013 in Brisbane, Australia.
The charismatic outside back was the first Colombian to ever score a try in the sport on an international arena, posting a jubilant four-pointer against Japan in Sydney in 2014.
Beyond being a popular a team man, the son of a Colombian radio host was also central to encouraging others to take up the game.
A series of interviews with SBS Radio and appearances in Australian newspapers in the formative months of the organisation were highly successful in attracting many squad members who remain to this day.
As exciting as that period was in his life, Villegas maintains that his return to the sport for the inaugural Colombian State of Origin is just as thrilling.
“Oh man, the momentum here behind rugby league right now is really encouraging,” said Villegas, now aged 31.
“There is very little funding, but the guys are getting it done through passion.
“When I first returned to Bogota in 2015 I tried to get others training and grow the sport, but it was extremely hard.
“Now that a few more guys have experience playing with the Latin Heat and in last November’s Latin American Championship, we are having more success.”
Villegas has been selected at centre for Cundinamarca in their clash with interstate rivals Antioquia, having played mostly as a winger in his time in Australia, but added size and strength in the intervening period.
His hometown of Bogota is the centre of Cundinamarca, while most of the players in the Antioquia squad come from the area surrounding Medellin, Colombia’s second-biggest city.
In the years since his return to Colombia, Villegas has been studying environmental science and working in tourism, having been employed as an environmental laboratory technician in Australia.
His last match for the GYG Latin Heat was a nine-a-side clash against Greece in 2014.
The clash with Antioquia presents an intriguing side battle, as Villegas’s former housemate, Medellin native Sebastian Maya Jimenez was one of the key figures in forming the opposing side.
Kick-off in the Colombian State of Origin will be at 2pm Saturday local time at Bogota Sports Club in Cota, equivalent to 6am Sunday in Sydney, 5am Sunday in Brisbane and 7pm Saturday in London.
The 100% volunteer-run Latin American Rugby League has been supported primarily by Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taquerias, Shield Security Pty Ltd, Tattoo Tears, Cast Graphics, IntaGas Services, LS Tax & Accounting Services, Retro-Com Digital TV Specialists, Colombianos en Brisbane, GMA Tourism, EMSA Education and Migration Services Australia, Lichtnauer and Associates Accountants, The Edge Home Loans, Oaky North Lodge CFMEU, ACTIVE Rehabilitation Physiotherapy, Radio Austral and Fighting For Fitness Gym.