“Rugby Is Not Something You Sniff”

P1020185By STEVE MASCORD

“LOOK at him – he’s barely said ‘boo’ the whole tour and now he’s got a big smile on his face and you can’t shut him up.”

A member of the Philippines team management is pointing at Sam Bernstrom, Sydney Roosters’ 198cm back rower. We are at the Nayon ng Kabataan Welfareville Compound – a Manila orphanage – on a scorching Wednesday afternoon.

Bernstrom is directing kids, hauled in off the streets by welfare officers, in passing drills. Soon, he will be buried under a pile of young boys so big that he looks like he’s genuinely concerned. Then he’ll put one tiny tot on his shoulders and they will wade through a group playing basketball and execute a cheeky slam dunk.

Three days before, the Philippines rugby league team – made up almost entirely of Australian-based players with a couple of Aussies playing rugby union in Asia thrown in for good measure – had brought our game to Asia for the first time with a 86-0 flogging of Thailand at Bangkok’s Royal Thai Police Stadium.

The crowd had been only about 150 – with any lasting benefit of the fixture in Thailand down to the local rugby union players who copped a pasting but who must now be relied upon to spread the word in the popular holiday destination.

For the Philippines boys, the real mission lay in a two hour plane ride the next day – to a place that in most cases one of their parents had come from but to which many of them had never been. Even if not one person in Manila, population 10,444,000, picks up rugby league as a result of their visit, the benefits to the young men in the touring party (who mostly funded the trip themselves) will be incalculable.

They are told about a garbage tip where fossickers dig out rancid food scraps and cook and sell them. Sitting in cabs going to the casino at Resort City each night, they see towering commercial buildings give way to abject poverty. They drink coke from plastic bags so the shops can keep the bottles and claim the refund.

Sam Berstrom buried under a pile of orphans - and looking worried
Sam Berstrom buried under a pile of orphans – and looking worried

But today, at the orphanage, is the most dumbfoundingly moving experience. The superintendent, Kumi Kobayashi, is a cousin of Gold Coast Titans hooker Matt Srama – who went straight home from Bangkok – and his brother Luke, who plays for Coventry Bears in the Conference League.

When she explained to about 40 orphans that the men in front of them did not represent “the rugby you know”, she wasn’t referring to the 15-man game. “Rugby is a drug that they sniff,” she tells me. “It’s like a glue. It’s unfortunately very popular on the streets. 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,” says Kobayashi.

The children were presented with Philippines Tamaraws (dwarf buffaloes, the mascot of the team) t-shirts and tiny stuffed koalas. They are not unusued to being visited by sports stars, as it turns out.

“We had David Beckham here late last year,” she said “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 (Srama) 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.”

Another Titans star, Kevin Gordon, finished the visit by dancing for the kids while his part-time DJ brother, Dennis, spun some tunes on the tannoy. Later, Kevin got an early start to pre-season training by pushing a food cart up a gravelly road outside the orphanage.

If rugby league does make an impression in Asia, those who support it can expect a wealth of new sights, sounds, smells and experiences.

Has a referee ever been serenaded (in this case, with Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’) by a national team after an international, as was Kasey Badger in Bangkok? Badger’s part in the first husband and wife refereeing team in the history of world sport was, of course, featured in the Observer (costing this writer a fortune in overseas roaming phone calls and leaving him cursing the thoroughness of Andy Wilson).

Aussie Andrew Charles did an unbelievable job origanising the game in Bangkok, attracting sponsors. Next year, it is hoped there’ll be a four-team domestic competition in Thailand with a sports bar in the holiday town of Pattaya particularly keen to get involved.

orphanage“The local rugby union, they don’t do much and they say no to a lot of ideas,” said 14-year-old Jonathan Boley, a player from an expat family, who watched the game in near-awe, said.

“With rugby league coming to Thailand, they don’t have to go through the TRU. They can do what they want to.”

Pattaya may also host a Nines tournament, with Pacific countries keen to reward those who missed out on World Cup selection by sending them to an exotic far east event, next year.

The Phillipines players, meanwhile, pressed flesh with the great and the good during their busy week in Manila, organising a nines tournament (touch rules) the Saturday after their international.

They have plans for a tri-series involving Japan and Thailand on a decomissioned airforce base around the same time next year. And there is a good chance the crowd will be bigger than 150. Kumi Kobayashi says the kids are always keen on an excursion…

Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

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