‘NEXT try wins!” came the call from the Philippines side as a scrum packed near the end of the first ever rugby league international in Asia yesterday.
The scene was the Royal Thai Police Stadium, Bangkok, on a sweltering Sunday afternoon. The score? Philippines 80 Thailand 0.
In front of a crowd of family and friends, a Filipino side including Gold Coast Titans stars Matt Srama and Kevin Gordon had run in 14 tries against an opposition made up mainly of local rugby union players.
The call, from an anonymous Filipino player, was intended to motivate his team-mates to keep their brave opposition scoreless as the Thais fed the final scrum.
But there was still something more at stake.
Between them, Matt Srama and his brother Luke had scored 26 points. They were one of five sets of brothers in the side. Kevin and Dennis Gordon, had scored 22.
The scrum was won by the Thais but they couldn’t hold onto it. Both benches were told the game was over. But before the siren could sound, Titan Kevin Gordon was in the clear – as we have seen so many times in the NRL – and he ran 65 metres before converting to edge his clan ahead of his club-mates’.
“My two goals got me close to my brother, anyway” said Kevin.
Meanwhile, Matt and Luke Srama got to play together for the first time.
“First time ever – we’ve been waiting for this day for years and years and years,” said Luke, who played hooker yesterday.
“We didn’t think it would ever happen but it finally has.”
Matt: “He reminds me of myself when I’m playing hooker – really tough, gets in there, popped the ball out four or five times. He gives me tips when I go back to Gold Coast.”
This was no explosive arrival for our game in a new region – but it was an arrival nonetheless. Some things that people imagine about international development games are better in reality. Other things are probably worse.
The commitment of the players, the nerves of the coaches and staff, the intensity of the warm-ups and the talk – it’s like anything we see in the winter months in Australasia. Players from pub competitions (or not playing at all this year) run out alongside highly-paid professionals, put their bodies on the line and new friendships are forged.
On the other hand, crowds are impossible to predict and often tiny, facilities are commonly poor (‘this shed is still better than Brookvale,’ a filipino wag commented) and everyone has to pitch in when it comes to lugging equipment, marking lines, filling up drink bottles and booking training facilities.
Playing international rugby league outside the top four countries mixes the passion and emotion of the game’s highest levels with the menial, humble chores of its lowest. There is no room for prima donnas or superstars.
People say it’s a waste of time and, says Srama, “I’ve got to admit, I was probably one as well.
“But the coaching staff, the Filipino rugby league, have all done a great job and hopefully we can promote the game over there a little bit in the Philipines.
“There are a lot of juniors coming through. Now there is a benchmark out there that there’s a team. When I was a kid, I would have loved it if there was a Filipino league team.
“We’re part of the first one ever.”
Referees are also often a problem at this level – thankfully they weren’t yesterday with the world’s first husband-and-wife officiating team in any sport taking control. They featured in a large story in the UK’s Observer yesterday morning – getting almost as much space as a Wembley or Old Trafford final.
Asked about the experience of controlling a match with partner Kasey – on the occasion of their second wedding anniversary – Gavin Badger said: “I didn’t get to have a go – she just kept taking everything.
“It’s just the way she looks at me sometimes.”