Rugby League History was quietly made last Saturday afternoon in Marrickville.
In front of a group of predominantly family and friends, the first ever Rugby League match between two South American sides kicked off at Henson Park. But allow me to back up to a little earlier in the day, because this was not just a curtain raising match for a Newtown massacre of Wentworthville, this day was an extravaganza of Latin Rugby League.
The day started for me at about 11am, with a hangover that had no interest in the sun-soaked hill-drinking I was accustomed to in my previous years of watching Newtown matches.* Just beginning was a Sevens match between Ecuador and Colombia which took until the first try for me to understand which team was which, as their jerseys vaguely reflected their national flags, and their national flags are practically identical but for a coat of arms! It turned out that the number 1 scoring in the corner was Ecuadorian and the day was underway. In a surprisingly slow game for a Sevens contest the half time score was only 8-0 to Ecuador after the number one scored a replica of their first try just on half time. Colombia hadn’t threatened to do much in the first half, and when the second opened with an immediate try to the Ecuadorian number 6, to make it 12 nil, the game looked as good as over (and we were yet to see a successful conversion). A glimmer of hope came from the Colombian tap off** as their best player decided to take it upon himself to run through the entire Ecuadorian side, including going to extra effort to try and score the try under the posts, only to be let down by the goal kicker who still managed to miss it. The sevens game ended 16 to 4 in favour of Ecuador, and as far as I knew, that would be the end of the day for those 2 nations. Spoiler alert, I was wrong.
Next up was a Nines game between Peru and Uruguay. For the uninitiated, Nines matches have nine minute halves, Sevens matches have seven minute halves, and the Uruguay National anthem goes for over 5 minutes. Once you add in the 2 and a half minutes of the Peruvian National Anthem, I had enough time to check out the authentic El Salvadorian food truck (that my stomach wouldn’t let me attempt, but I am told was of a higher quality than some of the footy on display), go to the bathroom and enquire about getting a program***
Once the game itself finally got underway, there was a clear step up in class. Peru were strong defensively to start the game with the Uruguayans making only 10 metres in their first set (in a Nines game!) before being forced to kick, and it ultimately resulted in Peru getting on the board first through their fullback and the first conversion of the day putting them up 6 nil. The Uruguayan custodian hit back with 4 minutes to go in the first half, but the turning point came in the final minute before the break. As the huge Peruvian number 10 found himself in space and bounding his way towards the corner with only the fullback to beat, his size meant he looked almost certain to go over the line, but his speed (or lack thereof) meant that a cheeky winger was able to sneak up behind him and poke the ball out from behind as he was running. If he scores there Peru extend their half time lead to 10-4 and in my opinion probably would have gone on with it given how much better than Uruguay they were looking at the time. As it was they went into half time frustrated to not be further ahead while the Uruguayans were boosted by the stop. Peru came out to open the second half and their number 9 undid all of his great work in forcing his way to the line by dropping it once he got there. A few minutes later Peru knock it on from a kick and gift Uruguay a try that put them in the lead 8-6. With just over 4 minutes to go in the game Peru were held up over the line and then knocked it on from the very next play. For anyone else, having that many opportunities that came up short in a game would be enough to pack it in, but this Peru side just kept at it and were rewarded as their number 7 crossed the line to finally put them up 10-8. Uruguay had a minute and a half to win it and all it took was a single piece of individual brilliance from Uruguay to score in the corner and win the game. The scoreline didn’t reflect the way the match had gone, and it would and whould have left Peru deflated at not getting a result.
It was about this time that I realized that the Ecuadorian and Colombian teams were all still suited up and ready to go again. “We are getting a bonus game here” I thought to myself. It turns out that it was the plan all along for there to be 2 Sevens games and 2 Nines games. With an aggregate score to be used over the 2 games to decide the winner of each. Fantastic!
The second Sevens game saw a slight reversal of fortunes. The Colombia side that looked all at sea in the first game started to come together as a team, and scored some spectacular tries, but couldn’t quite do enough to save the tie overall as Ecuador scored late to ensure an overall win of 24-18 across the two matches.
There was a bit more intrigue for the second Nines game however. The first match was odd in a few ways. Firstly in that Peru were the better side, but couldn’t translate it to points, but the second in that the game had to be stopped a couple of times as tempers flared and players had to be separated. This was a friendly game of Nines from 2 nations that you would expect would simply be happy to be playing, but it appeared as though some of them were taking this game pretty seriously.
So as they took to the field for the second game, there was a feeling that this mattered to them. It flared up after the first opportunity to Peru (which was once again a missed opportunity). Some of it HAS to have come from the frustration of the Peruvian players at their inability to finish their chances over and over again. When Uruguay scored off the next set, it once again flared up confirming the suspicions that Peru were not happy with their performance. The referee took a LONG time to talk to both sides and calm them down and it worked in calming the game down, but it also took all of the fire out of the game, which ultimately broke the backs of Peru. The only way that they were going to get over their mistakes and make up for their errors would be to fire up and just make it happen. With the talking down the referee gave them that was off the table. They were never back in the contest. Uruguay made it look easy, and Peru looked spent. In the end the final aggregate score ended up being 36 to 22, and it was a very disappointing result for a Peruvian side that should have shut it down as a contest in the first match.
Then it was time for the big game. Chile v El Salvador. In honour of the significance of the game the players from Uruguay and Peru formed a tunnel for the players to run out onto the field. An unorthodox looking El Salvadorian side^ had the first opportunity but completely bombed a 4 on 1 opportunity with a terrible pass that went to ground. From the next set James Horvat scored for Chile to really rub salt into the wound and give them an early 6-0 lead. In the 10th minute El Salvador opened their account with Miguel Alarcon crossing the line to help level the scores. On the 15th minute I had a conversation with a friend that I was glad that the 2 sides looked fairly evenly matched and it looked like it was going to be a competitive game. It was the official jinx of the day. For the remaining 25 minutes of the first half Chile went at a point a minute and while El Salvador did let in some poor tries with soft goal line defence, the Chilean side showed their class and in particular the fullback Horvat had a great sense for where to pop up and make a break or score a try.
It didn’t get any better in the second half as Chile scored 14 points in the first 10 minutes to completely end the match up as a contest with a 46-6 lead. El Salvador literally didn’t touch the ball for the first time in the second half until the 10th minute. Chile took their foot off the accelerator and El Salvador did get better once they got a bit of ball (and Chile also started to tire), but the final score of 58 to 20 was ultimately a fair reflection of the play.
People like to say that the Pacific Islands match that happens on the weekend of the Anzac Test is a true support of International Rugby League, but I would choose a weekend watching the South Americans run around on a traditional suburban ground in the original rugby league heartland over most other options, and I REALLY hope this becomes an ongoing tradition.
*I opened my first beer an hour later. It helped.
**Yeah, the Sevens game had tap offs rather than kick offs. Team that conceded gets the tap.
***There was no program produced for this day, which is a huge shame and the reason that my reporting contains only the numbers of the players from the first part of the day. There is a list of players from the day at here but it only has the numbers for the 13 a side match.
^Their halfback did not look like a halfback. He was a mixture of Owen Craigie and Brad Drew, with a little bit of George Rose thrown in. Not what you normally expect to see in a number 7 jersey.