WITH the National Rugby League season in Australia just 24 hours away, an important alliance has been formed to take the game into new and unchartered territories.
Indeed, the long-term possibility of rugby league scholarships for people from Latin America is a driving force behind the partnership of the Latin Heat and new shorts sponsor Link Australia.
Following a month where the Heat secured their maiden international win with a 22-8 defeat of Japan in Sydney, the two parties have begun exploring ways to spread the game through Latin America and offer opportunities to talented prospects.
As a business which facilitates an easy transition for international students, Link Australia specialises in education, employment, accommodation and visa assistance.
With service centres in Mexico and Colombia – as well as three offices in Australia and many more spread across the globe – Link Australia has a thorough understanding of the hurdles that need to be overcome.
“When Link Australia first came to us about sponsoring the Latin Heat they were simply wanting to support a concept they saw as good for the community,” says Latin Heat director Robert Burgin.
“But then when we sat down and talked more we soon realised we could probably do something more tangible for Latin Americans and the game of rugby league if we put our mind to it.
“There will need to be a third party involved, so the next step for us is getting out to rugby league clubs, ruling bodies and commercial partners to explain the possible return on investment for offering scholarships.
“Of course rugby league is virgin territory for much of South and Central America, but if you take a place like Colombia, you have a population density 20 times that of Australia and the ability to employ 10 development officers for every one you can afford here.”
Since officially forming in July 2013, the Latin Heat has had four players of promising ability return home to Colombia.
The team is also soon due to lose foundation winger Fernando Villegas – the only player to feature in all nine Latin Heat games to date – due to visa expiry.
Villegas (pictured) has become an accomplished face of the team, appearing three times on SBS and conducting a number of other Spanish-speaking interviews which have encouraged newcomers to the game.
Yet as with others previously, without a sponsor to remain in Australia or a supporting accreditation to take back to Colombia, his experiences in rugby league will not be able to be transferred to his homeland.
Elsewhere in Latin America, countries like Argentina and Uruguay have a registered participation rate in rugby union of around one in every 500 people (superior to Australian Rugby Union), but don’t have any existing avenues to play rugby league.
Link Australia’s Sergio Blanco said the chance to offer opportunities for Latinos to experience a different culture through rugby league, while improving both their employment prospects and standard of living would be exciting.
“As a business that has been servicing international visitors for many years, we have the knowledge and contacts to smooth the transition from other countries to Australia,” said Mr Blanco.
“We continually derive enjoyment from seeing our many service users enjoy the Australian culture and further their education and life experiences.
“We believe Latin Americans have a lot to offer the world in many spheres and we are only too happy to encourage them.
“It’s an untapped goldmine in many ways.”
Link Australia Education and Service Centres join existing Latin Heat sponsors Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taquerias, Crop del Monte Coffee Specialists, Rumba Latina Entertainment, Samba Times, and Gringo Magazine & TV.
Latin Heat Rugby League is currently conducting a thorough strategic plan, aimed at capitalising on the team’s faster-than-expected growth in Australia so that modes of game development in Latin America and funding models can be analysed.
This document is expected to be presented to rugby league, commercial and community stakeholders within the month.