Rugby League will welcome participation from a professional team in Latin America for the first time, with news that Melina will contest the Brazilian women’s national championships in São Lourenço this weekend.
Founded by French migrants Michel and Alain Leplus, the Melina club boasts a sprawling campus in the central-western city of Cuiabá, where two teams of female players live fulltime and have access to gym equipment, two full-sized fields, a pool and on-site coaching staff around the clock.
Although the Leplus brothers come predominantly from a rugby union background – Alain represented France and was Brazilian national coach in the sport – they have fond memories from their childhood of how strong rugby league was in France, and see vast potential for the 13-player code in Brazil.
Subsequently they are taking the extraordinary step of sending a double-decker coach with two teams on a 1700km-plus journey to São Lourenco in Minas Gerais, where more than 150 women from eight teams are expected to vie for a place in Brazil’s extended squad for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in England.
The journey represents a longer distance than London, UK, to Barcelona, Spain, or from Toronto, Canada, to Orlando, USA.
The number of competing teams in the Brazilian women’s 13-a-side category has doubled since the last national championships were possible in December of 2019, a little over 12 months ago.
This weekend will also see the men’s nine-a-side championships held at the same venue, with six teams competing from around Brazil. The men’s 13-a-side championship will be held next month in São Paulo state.
Urutau, a club based near Curitiba which has a distinctive screaming owl as its mascot, will start as defending champions in the men’s division.
Meanwhile, the inclusion of Melina has thrown the women’s category wide open. South-western club Maringá Hawks and new coastal club Vitória Rhinos were previously being touted as favourites by many, however they have been drawn in the same pool as professionals Melina.
Melina is famed in Brazil as a brand of 100% natural grape juice, and the Leplus brothers grow their produce in the stifling heat of Cuiabá’s surrounds, which is on the doorstep to the incredibly biodiverse Pantanal region.
Cuiabá was one of the host cities of FIFA World Cup 2014, where Australia played Chile, Russia faced South Korea, Nigeria took on Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Colombia beat Japan.
This weekend’s national championships will see the women’s 13-a-side teams play four reduced-time qualifying matches over two days, with semi-finals to take place on another weekend next month.
The men’s 9-a-side national champion will be decided in a final on Sunday.
Brasil Rugby League’s ability to host these events depends largely on the support of sponsors Agrimix Pastures, Tagarela migration and education specialists, and Crossfit Steel Giants.