TWO former Cronulla Sharks are backing another underdog this week, helping Latin American rugby league players chase a long-term dream.
Both Aaron Raper and brother Stuart Raper have been drilling the up-and-coming GYG Latin Heat in a week which will see their beloved Sharks vie for their first top-flight premiership in 50 years.
The Latinos have a similar mountain to climb as the Sharks, working towards Latin American nations participating in Rugby League World Cup qualification for the first time in history.
On Friday (September 30) at St Mary’s Stadium the composite Latino squad will play a combined North American team known as the CanAm Grizzlies – a team which features a host of experienced internationals.
But the Raper brothers have not let the task daunt them, and instead are revelling in the opportunity to help spread the game to new audiences.
“It has certainly been different and, as much as I hope the players have learnt from me, I’ve also learnt a lot myself the last few weeks,” says head coach Aaron.
“There was a tournament last week featuring seven teams in Chile…and I didn’t even know they played the sport until I joined the Heat.
“I guess another learning curve has been names. Remembering which Javier or Carlos or Diego people were talking about was hard enough, let alone pronouncing surnames.
“They keep me on my toes and they love to have a laugh.
“I just hope I can help turn the boys into better footballers and provide some foundation for their ambitions going forward.”
The timing of the international clash comes in a week where the US presidential debate was held, preceding an election that could have wide-ranging impacts for Latino people.
It has also coincided perfectly with Cronulla’s run to the NRL grand final against perennial heavyweights Melbourne Storm.
The Rapers have brought an infectious enthusiasm to training as they anticipate a possible end to the drought for their long-suffering Sharks.
“It’s just a great time of year if you’re a rugby league fan, but even more special if you follow a club that has a genuine chance to win it,” Aaron said.
“I’m going to be at a few different functions and catching up with some of the great mates I’ve made from footy over the years, which adds to it all.
“Of course, a few of the Latino boys have been provoking us at training and saying ‘Go the Storm’.
“They’ll be the ones I don’t pick this weekend…haha.”
Although he’s joking, any players not selected in the Elite game against North America will have the chance to be selected for a development game the following day (Saturday, October 1) against Africa United.
The Africa United match will be a celebration of the unifying powers of rugby league, with numerous players from refugee families appearing on both sides.
Latin Heat’s Development Squad will be coached by Fredy Arteaga-Figueroa who spent several years hiding in mountainous terrain before escaping the civil war in El Salvador as a child.
His story is mirrored by that of Africa United’s Obed Kharwin, who walked a month through the jungle to escape conflict in his native Ivory Coast.
The Africans will also play former Parramatta junior standout Fairouz Elkander.
Entry to both games will be $5, with all funds going towards continued efforts to grow rugby league in developing nations.
LATIN HEAT ELITE v NORTH AMERICA (CanAm Grizzlies)
Friday, September 30, 6.30pm
St Mary’s Stadium, Forrester Rd, St Mary’s.
SQUAD (Alphabetical): Daniel AGUIRRE ACEVEDO, Alvaro ALARCON, Miguel ALARCON, Matthew BOOTH, Nicholas CAMA, Juan Carlos CARRION, Steven CLARKE, Sebastian DELAPAZ, Nicholas DOBERER, Jonathan ESPINOZA, Jacob GUILIANO, Jesse GRAHAM, James HORVAT ©, Jaden LAING, Bradley MILLAR, Trent MILLAR, Joshua MUNOZ, Daniel NAVARRO, Jacob PARKER, Andres ROSSINI, Eduardo WEGENER (vc). Coach: Aaron RAPER.
LATIN HEAT DEVELOPMENT v AFRICA UNITED
Saturday, October 1, 3pm.
Moorebank Sports Club, Hammond Oval, 230 Heathcote Rd, Hammondville.
SQUAD (Alphabetical): Javier ALARCON, Junior ALARCON, Chris BRANTES, Javier BRITOS, Mana CASTILLO, Juan David ESPINAL CANO ©, Pablo FLORENTIN, Luis FHON, William GOMEZ, Jeff LOPEZ, JC MENDEZ, Gabriel PAPA, Roque PEREZ MEJIA, Daniel RICKARD, Edgar SANTAMARIA, Daniel SARMIENTO, Diego VEJERANO, Jayden YASAR + 2 to be added at training this week.