WHEN children at a Manila orphanage were told yesterday that the men in front of them did not represent “the rugby you know about”, it seemed par for the course.
Outside of Australia, New Zealand and Britain, it’s an achievement if people know there is just one form the game, let alone two.
“No,” explained the facility’s administrator, Ms Kumi Kobayashi, “rugby is a drug that they sniff. It’s like a glue. We have to explain to them that these boys have nothing to do with that.
“The orphans here were either abused or abandoned. They are street kids, picked up by social security services and brought here. We try to get them training to get a job, and at 17 they go back out there.”
Kumi is the cousin of Gold Coast hooker Matt Srama, whose exploits in the NRL she has read about from clippings sent by her auntie. Matt had already returned to Australia by the time the Philippines rugby league team visited the Nayon ng Kabataan Welfareville Compound in Mandaluyong City yesterday.
His brother, England-based hooker Luke, took charge of the two hour session with around 30 energetic kids, who were put through catching, passing and kicking drills before being handed t-shirts and tiny koala bears.
“We had David Beckham here late last year,” Kobayashi told NRL.com as children swerved and stepped in the distance and hiphop music played over a PA system in a covered courtyard, protected by armed guards.
“There was him and about 12 members of his entourage. There was a five minute photo opportunity and he did pose with the (orphanage) soccer team but then he was gone.
“Some of the kids were disappointed. They wanted his autograph but you couldn’t get near him.
“When Matt came the next month, he stayed until every kid had his photo taken with him or he signed something. Today, with all these boys here, the kids will remember for a long time.”
Sydney Roosters forward Sam Bernstom, one of the quietest men in the squad which beat Thailand 86-0 on the weekend in the first rugby league international played in Asia, couldn’t contain his smile throughout the visit.
At one stage, the lanky 197cm back rower hoisted a youngster onto his shoulders and they waded through a group playing basketball to execute a slam dunk. On another occasion, he was buried under a pile of children so big he – and by extension, new tricolours chief executive Brian Canavan – had cause for genuine concern.
“It’s anything but sad,” said Bernstrom.
“The kids here, they’re all so excited to see us and it’s a great honour to be here.
“Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces, it’s really enlightening. It’s my first time to the Philippines as well. It’s an awesome experience and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Not only were the orphans enthusiastic but may showed a natural affinity with the game, taking up full-bodied tacklking without being asked to and displaying the sort of evasive skills that impressed the Philippines (knowns as Tamaraws, or bulls) coach, Clayton Watene.
All players paid their own way to Thailand and Manila – although having Philippines Airlines as a sponsor helped – and for their own off-field kit. Coaches and managers each put in several thousand dollars from their own pockets.
While the crowd in Bangkok was tiny, they are convinced they are making headway in the Philippines. This Saturday, there’ll be a nines tournament on a decomissioned airforce base.
As the players, drawn from all levels of competition in Australia and the UK, walked through the dusty streets outside the orphanage to hail cabs, they stopped for coke drunk from a plastic bag so the shop could claim the bottle refund. And NRL star Kevin Gordon put his Centre Of Excellence training to good use by helping push a food cart up a hill.
But for young Australians whose parents had left the Philippines for a better life, the impact of the experience only then started to sink in, with expressions like “that’s really brought me down a level” heard in taxis on the way back to well-to-do Makati.