Rugby League’s Christmas miracle in Santa Marta

Rugby League’s Christmas miracle in Santa Marta

IN THE poorest parts of Santa Marta, Colombia, children gather in parks for 20 minutes of free wi-fi per day so they can complete their homework.

This week that short stint of free internet was surpassed by around six hours of free rugby league activity spread over two days, as visiting Chilean club Antofagasta took on local outfit Black Miuras.

It was one of the most heart-warming exercises this writer can ever remembering witnessing in emerging nations rugby league.

The gratitude, enthusiasm and selflessness shown by both teams was on another level.

And in the end, the pioneering Antofagasta selection was rewarded for their bravery and generosity in travelling 5000km to play (further than Sydney to Perth), taking out a memorable 34-10 victory in front of a strong and vocal crowd.

The backdrop to the event was immense. The day before, both teams had assembled for two hours of refereeing and coaching education in the morning, then two hours of on-field instruction in the evening.

Information and encouragement were freely shared between both sides, with the greater aim of the sport’s expansion and providing positive direction for the city’s youth at the forefront.

Some of the children that participated were accustomed to training on fields of only dirt and sand.

But for this special occasion, they played on the impressive surface of Estadio de Rugby Villa Bolivariana, gleefully accepted free gifts provided by the NRL, Sunshine Coast Falcons and North Curl Curl Knights.

When the match started, it was simultaneously everything that is great about rugby league, but also done with the peculiarities of a sport in a non-traditional area.

The Antofogasta halfback wore number 69, one player suffered dual leg cramps at the exact time he dived over for a decisive try, and the sideline medic was a young woman in full nursing regalia.

Prior to the match there was some expectation the Black Miuras may ambush the more experienced visitors, selecting a young side high on pace and agility.

Under an intense tropical Caribbean sun, the outnumbered and physically larger Chileans (who only travelled with a reduced squad due to civil unrest in their homeland) could have had every reason to struggle.

Yet they showed the benefits of their longer history in the 13-man game, playing intelligently to set up a 14-4 halftime lead.

Antofagasta proved more adept at completing their sets in possession, while Black Miuras were constantly looking to shift the ball wide, often resulting in errors.

However, had two narrowly-missed tries gone the way of Black Miuras in the first 40 minutes, the result would have rested more precariously.

Indeed, the potential of players on both sides was impressive.

Halfback Robinson Rodriguez was a standout on the losing Santa Marta side, possessing the physical frame of a forward, the jink and aggression of a much more seasoned player, and passion which knew no bounds.

His halves partner, Jose De Dos Rodriguez was nicknamed ‘The Colombian Matty Bowen’ for his similar height and fleetness of foot, while prop and spiritual leader Jorge Cantillo was immense with every charge.

Winger Nelson Parada was another who showed he could perhaps compete in the lower tiers of English or Australian competitions, backrower Victor Fragoso worked tirelessly, while fullback Jean Villamil almost scored a freakish 90m try that featured two kicks on the fly.

Antofagasta’s best was utility Jaime Santander, a member of the Chilean national team which won the Latin American Rugby League championship in 2017. He started the game on the wing and opened the scoring, then gradually moved in closer to the play as the game progressed, proving constantly dangerous.

He nosed out robust centre Lincoyan Bautista for man-of-the-match honours. Bautista was arguably the standout defender on the field and his big hits and superior wrestle were matched by determination in running the ball.

Elsewhere, electrifying winger Andres Usuga was unlucky not to finish with two tries, displaying express pace before a neck injury saw his contribution cut short, while fullback Moises Rojas treated the crowd to an array of kicking skills.

Joohan Bastidas, raised in Cali, Colombia, but now a resident of Chile, returned home with a bang and was powerful in the centre of the ruck.

The most impressive try of the day was fittingly saved for last, with Bryan Mejia Tavares chipping over the top from inside his own half, beating five defenders then offloading for centre Fernando Bugueno to finish the day for Antofagasta.

Subsequent newspaper reports detailed “a game of great emotion” and not a truer word could be spoken, with players from both sides reduced to tears by impassioned speeches after fulltime.

“This is sporting, social and cultural training, helping young people design a life that is rooted in community activity,” Black Miuras captain-coach Cantillo said in the wash-up.

“We hope this experience has helped them gain insight into the wider world.

“It’s a place to create friendships in this distinct sport, which although not known commonly in Colombia, has worldwide growth.

“I believe the exponents gave the best of themselves.”

Cantillo paid particularly thanks to Australian-based Colombians Sebastian Maya Jimenez and Juan David Espinal, who travelled back to their homeland to help host the event, along with Bogota-based Eduardo Rincon, who has only recently returned to his roots after being adopted as a baby by Australians.

Antofagasta coach Javier Nunez Contreras, who deserves global recognition for his continued and fearless initiative to expand the game in Latin America, also spoke enthusiastically at fulltime.

“The score does not matter to me. The experience everybody takes home is the whole objective,” he said.

Antofogasta has previously taken it upon themselves to visit Argentina to help grow the game there as well, making them the most-travelled sub-national team on the continent.

ANTOFAGASTA 34 (Jaime Santander, Joohan Bastidas, Moises Rojas, Alvaro Perez, Lincoyan Bautista, Richard Cabarca, Fernando Bugueno tries; Moises Rojas 3 goals) def BLACK MIURAS 10 (Jorge Cantillo, William Martinez tries; Luis Anata goal) at Estadio de Rugby Villa Bolivariana, Santa Marta Colombia. Referee: Arturo Pulido. Touch Judges: Ervinson Plata, Elias Zarza.


ANTOFAGASTA (in positional order): Moises Rojas, Andres Usuga, Lincoyan Bautista, Fernando Bugueno, Jaime Santander, Alvaro Perez, Patricio Zamorano, Eduardo Toro, Richard Cabarca*, Hugo Ojeda, Joohan Bastidas, Aramis Leguias*, Jorge Cortes. Interchange: Luis Tarquini*, Cleiner Ballesteros*, Bryan Mejia Tavares*.  Coach: Javier Nunez Contreras.

*denotes players loaned by Black Miuras to supplement visiting squad. Several Antofagasta players forced to withdraw late due to employment concerns sparked by ongoing civil unrest.


BLACK MIURAS (in positional order): Jean Villamil, Pablo Cortijo, Santander Giraldo, Ismael Herndandez, Nelson Parada, Jose De Dos Rodriguez, Robinson Rodriguez, Belis Redondo, Luis Granados, Jorge Cantillo, Jhosuel Bolanos, Victor Fragoso, William Martinez. Interchange: Luis Anata, Dagoberto Hernandez, Andres Jimenez, Manuel Morales, Leonardo Delgado, Jesus Delgado, Carlos Perez, Sebastian Maya Jimenez, Eduardo Rincon. Coach: Jorge Cantillo.