FAR & WIDE: Number 41

Far & WideBy STEVE MASCORD

IT’S not often we have a rugby league team that represents an entire continent but South America’s Latin Heat has been formally launched.

The side will make its bow in the Mitchelton Nines in Brisbane on Saturday, Sept 21.

“Forward Leighton Johanneson was raised in Colombia after his sugar cane-farming parents decided to become missionaries there,” enthuses organiser Robert Burgin.

“He was a goalkeeper for a Division A football team over there. His parents continue to work in some of Colombia’s poorest area, while he has returned to live in Bundaberg.”

The team has even secured sponsorship from the Guzman Y Gomez taco chain!

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NSW and Queensland Universities are set for an excellent adventure next month following confirmation they’ll be taking part in a tournament in Tonga.

The teams arrive in Naku’alofa two days after the NRL grand final. On October 10, two rep sides picked from the domestic competition, Tonga Tau’uta and Tonga Tautahi, play each other and so do the Australian states.

Then, two days later at the Teufaiva Stadium (venue for the whole tourney), the losers play each other and so do the winners.

There’s a whole heap of international football taking place post-season, aside from the World Cup, at all levels.

Far & Wide remembers when it was possible to go to every international rugby league game in a given year!

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FORGET all the doubts – the Asia Cup is going ahead at Clark, Philippines, next month*.

Unfortunately, the shoulder injury suffered by Matt Sarama in round 26 might stop him joining brother Luke in the Tamaraws side. It’s uncertain if Andrew Everingham’s move to Japanese rugby union will affect his involvement.

Organisers have suffered one setback – they’ve been kicked off the playing fields due to an army exercise! An alternative venue is now being sought.

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OOPS. We incorrectly reported last week that Demark had been disqualified from the European Shield for fielding ineligible players. It was, of course, Norway and that is also the country that cancelled its trip to Canada.

Apologies.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

DISCORD 2013: Edition 34

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

THERE’S almost too much to talk about this week: the latest Cronulla developments, the sacking for David Furner & the possibility of Ben Barba being banned from playing against Canterbury as part of any release to Brisbane.

So we’ll give all three of them a miss for now. Not much to add on Cronulla’s ‘secret’ bank account, the exact circumstances of Furner’s removal are still in dispute and no-one actually seems to say much on the record about Barba and the Broncos.

Let’s instead talk about the mess Wests Tigers have got themselves into.

If you’ve been keeping an eye on this website in recent days, you’ll be aware that the joint venture needs an ‘urgent cash injection’ of $1 million, and that Western Suburbs will only provide this if they are handed the chairmanship.

Balmain, on the other hand, want an independent board to run the club and are interested in a funding package from the NRL.

Alan Katzmann, a well know and respected Sydney Roosters fan, writes: “As a Roosters supporter, and NRL fan, I would be appalled to see the NRL provide these funds.

“Adopting the proposal from Balmain, together with their phony altruism, will mean that the rest of the rugby league world would suffer as a result of Balmain’s petulance.

“Funds that could help junior development or keep increases in grand final tickets to a minimum would be spent instead keeping Wests Tigers afloat when they already have alternate funding readily available.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Balmain is lucky Wests aren’t demanding to drop the ‘Tigers’ half of their name completely.

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FURTHER to our item last week about the battle for control of the game in Thailand, Andrew Charles – coach of the Thailand Stars side which played the Philippines in October – has responded to some of the claims made last week by rival – Shannon Crane.

OK, we realise this is all small potatoes given that only one game of any note has ever been played in the kingdom – but it’s an interesting microcosm of the bickering that besets our game all over the world.

Charles disputes the claim Crane registered a trademark, he says the only “legal action” initiated was having a facebook page taken down and says every player who represented Thailand Stars against the Philippines was eligible under RLIF rules.

He also disputes the amount of time Crane spends in Thailand. You’ve now heard both sides of the argument, make up your own mind.

In the meantime, more evidence of the thawing in relations between the rival AMNRL and USARL, with Boston 13s player Shane Begin picked to play for the US Tomahawks this weekend against Canada.

The 13s play in the ‘rebel’ USARL, which until recently meant he would be excluded from national selection. The international is being played as part of a double header with the USARL championship game in Pennsylvania this Saturday.

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THIS week’s column comes to you from sunny London, where Wigan and Hull meet in a rematch of the famous 1985 Challenge Cup final this Saturday.

On Friday in Trafalgar Square, there’ll be a three-hour promotion for the World Cup, which I’m looking forward to. Later that night, I’ll be talking to the European Federation about media and how to get more exposure.

How do you think international rugby league could make the mainstream media sit up and take more notice? Comments below please.

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SPEAKING of comments, here’s some responses to those you’ve posted over the last week.

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FAR & WIDE: Number 37

Far & WideBy STEVE MASCORD

WE’RE pleased to confirm that Malta will be taking on Italy at Livorno on September 6!*

The international, which we foreshadowed in a previous column, has just been confirmed and means the Azzurri will have a better World Cup preparation than most of their rivals.

Livorno is near Pisa. The countries are negotiating a deal which would involve them fielding no more than seven overseas-based players, to promote domestic activity.

Well done. Would love to be there.

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WE received a call last week from Shannon Crane, the man behind what was previously described as the “rebel” league in Thailand.

In fact, says Crane, his organisation pre-dates by several months the one that fielded a team against the Philippines last October.

Crane, a former Penrith junior coach who moved the Bangkok in 2004 to pursue business interests, actually attended that game but disapproved of the number of expats in the Thailand Stars team.

“We didn’t even think of staging internationals – our focus was on getting a domestic competition up and running first,” said Crane.

While the RLIF is yet to take sides in Thailand, Crane’s group owns most of the trademarks associated with Thai Rugby League and will be getting serious in the next few months.

Doug Keen will be coaching referees later this year, a six team competition (four in Bangkok and two in Pattaya) is due to kick off next year and his side plays Greece at a major stadium on October 12.

He says he has big name companies lined up as sponsors and insists to put down solid roots in the Kingdom, you need to live there.

“I have nothing against Andrew Charles and the people who put together the Thailand Stars,” he said.

“I have had a meeting with him and offered to work with him, share everything. So far, they’ve insisted on doing their thing and we are pressing on with ours’.

“The Thailand Stars are not the national rugby league team, though.”

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OK, NOW we have got to the bottom of THAT, how about this?

What’s worse than two warring governing bodies in a country where there is very little actual rugby league? How about one of those warring governing bodies having two warring websites?

The establishment AMNRL, which is sending the United States team to the World Cup, used to have a site called AMNRL.com, which disappeared and then came back and didn’t appear to have been updated for some time.

Now AMNRL.com is back, with a recently-written story about the World Cup. But it has a rival called AMNRL.org, which redirects to club pages.

Anyways … at least there rival leagues are hosting a joint event this weekend. Let’s hope they settle their differences over a few beers.

* NB: Since this story appeared, the Malta-Italy international has been cancelled.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

DISCORD 2013: Edition 33

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

NRL chief executive David Smith hasn’t just been vindicated by the deal signed with Touch Football Australia – he’s been vindicated by the reaction to it.

If Smith has made his name for anything in his short time in charge of the game in this country, it’s been for ignoring criticism.

Multiplying rugby league’s participant numbers four or five-fold in one fell swoop is not just his first really big triumph but it’s rugby league’s biggest success since peace broke out in the Super League War.

Yet there are those who either see the development as of no significance or of actually being bad. I wonder if these are the same sections of the game’s community who have previously been criticising his management style?

The fact people can still find fault with such a staggering achievement proves David Smith has been right to ignore us all along.

Some of the criticism I have seen on social media has been along the lines of the merger being “a numbers game” and “window dressing”, along with the contention that the merger will somehow make the game at the top level “softer”.

That, or that it is part of an overall strategy to make the game softer.

Discord’s core belief about the way forward for any sport is that it’ objectivs must be to expose itself to more participants and more spectators. Without that aim, there is no reason for administrators to get out of bed in the morning.

It is to be hoped more women, for a start, have a go at full contact rugby league as a result of the new link between the sports. This is a potential boon for the women’s game.

Touch football can also provide us with more spectators, particularly in the “heathen” states, if we market our sport to them intelligently. We can win back a few people we have lost over the years. We can perhaps find more Shaun Johnsons and Matt Moylans and stop them going to rugby union.

But the most significant statement came from the boss of TFA, Colm Maguire, who said: “Touch Football in Australia was born out of Rugby League”.

That’s right, touch was a reaction to the popularity of rugby league so the NRL has every right to bring it BACK under its umbrella.

Of course, rugby union denizens would no doubt have similar argument about annexing league – but in this country, combined, the rugby codes would still be dwarfed by Touch Football!

To compare touch football with “brandings”, “British Bulldog” and “Kiss and catch” is highly amusing but ignores the historical links. If rugby league was not popular in Australia, touch football would not be popular.

But most importantly, as a rugby league fan, I hope David Smith is not reading this. And if he is, I hope he gives it scant regard. I don’t want a leader of my game that cares what some hack thinks.

I want a leader who does what he thinks is right until he doesn’t have a job anymore.

Also, I think we can see why the NRL needs 140 staff when you are doing broad-brush things such as merging sports. Making the most of a decision affecting more than a million participants, can’t be done with two people a couple of mobile phones. It’s a mind-bogglingly complex task.

Discord is hearing that the International Rugby League Federation may soon have a handful of fulltime employees, too, and a physical address!

Give me a second while I get up off the floor.

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DISCORD got a phone call this week from Shannon Crane, the man behind the ‘other’ rugby league body in Thailand.

For those who have been following this, you’ll be aware there has only been one game of note in the Kingdom, last year’s “international” between Thailand and the Philippines in Bangkok.

I used quotation marks there because Crane says he registered “Thai Rugby League” as a trademark in mid 2011 and the team fielded against the Tamaraws included players who were not eligible to represent the country under RLIF rules.

Crane, a former Penrith development squad coach who moved to Thailand to pursue business interests in 2004, always intended to start a domestic comp first and was happy to let the other group, led by South Sydney Juniors identity Andrew Charles, do as they wished.

That’s as long as they didn’t infringe on his copyright, which he says they did. This resulted in legal action. Crane hopes to have a six-team domestic competition up and running next year with some big name sponsors.

The RLIF appears to have made no call yet on which group it supports. Crane’s team plays Greece in Bangkok on October 12 with a big domestic pop star Dome Pakorn Lum to perform at halftime.

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COMMENTS time and let’s start with last week’s Discord, which concerned itself chiefly with Anthony Milford.

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FAR & WIDE: Number 32

By Far & WideSTEVE MASCORD

HERE’S one from the ‘It Can Only Happen In Rugby League’ department.

Keen readers will be aware that Thailand made their international bow last October, taking on the Philippines in Bangkok, and assembled a national team from scratch without having a club competition.

Since then they’ve been trying to get club teams off the ground. Well guess what’s happened? C’mon, think about it, what would be the most ridiculous but predictable development to occur in a country where there is almost no rugby league.

That’s right, THERE IS NOW A REBEL THAI RUGBY LEAGUE.

National coach Andrew Charles wrote to Far and Wide when we recently reported plans for a game in Bangkok between Thailand and Greece A. Basically, he said ‘that’s not us, it’s the rebels’.

Say wha? Charles said the man behind it is one Shannon Crane.

A few excerpts from his response: “They seem to be selling franchises for a domestic comp … they had our Facebook page disabled claiming for copyright infringement but we are registered …. Super League Thai Style … we are all sad about it but pressing on.”

I mean, seriously. This equals the stand-off in the 1990s between Super League Japan and the East Japan Rugby League when there was no actual rugby league being played in Japan.

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ON a much more serious and insidious note, the antics of the Moroccan Rugby Union in trying to wreck a tour by the Great Britain Pioneers students team is nothing short of a disgrace.

In case you missed it, police marched journalists out of one game and theats by the rugby union resulted in a ground withdrawing permission to host another match while even the bus company was prevented from carrying the team around!

As in South Africa, rugby league is not recognised as a separate sport to rugby union in Morocco and the rahrahs have done their best to keep it that way.

Surely we need a more active RLIF to stand up to this sort of prejudice. We really need an Ambassador For Rugby League. Who would you appoint?

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RUSSIA could have lifted the European Shield with a win over Italy in Este two weekends ago but instead were soundly beaten.

Warming up for the World Cup, Italy raced to a 32-0 halftime lead and then coasted home. The Russians need to beat Germany in August to secure the title, which is played for over two years.

Meanwhile, Vanuatu will announce its post-season program this week.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

FAR & WIDE: Number 29

Far & WideBy STEVE MASCORD

OK, we think we’ve got to the bottom of what happened to the Samoans who were stranded in Hawaii for almost a week after their clash with the United States after failing to board their plane.

AMNRL officials Steve Johnson has corroborated what he was told by the Samoan Rugby League with Hawaiian Airlines.

Apparently all 23 players checked in but only 13 took off. The rest wandered around the airport and missed their flight. Because the first landfall was within US territory, the airline was able to give their seats to standby passengers.

New flights home were arranged several days later. We aren’t sure of the expense but there was minimal consular embarrassment, which is good for future events in the islands.

The good news is that 7000 people showed up for the game and rugby league is gaining a real foothold in Hawaii.

“We had two US congresspersons, the mayor and head of Hawaiian Tourism at the game,” says Johnson.

“It’s seriously exciting after a few years of hard work. We’re bringing another two Hawaiian lads to Ipswich to play for rest of the year.

“We have built some high level connections in Hawaii including government and TV”.

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MORE exotic fixtures continue to pop up at the end of the year.

Greece are going on a big adventure, fielding an ‘A’ team against Thailand in Bangkok on October 12 and playing a full international against Hungry in Budapest on October 26.

Australian –based players in the squad will also get the chance to play in the Greek domestic competition.

On July 12 at the Grand Roxy in Brighton Le Sands, the Greeks will be holding a fundraising dinner. It sounds like a top night and most drinks are included in the cover price. If you’re interested, contact Terry on 02 95348015.

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WE have a date and venue for the historic World Cup warm-up game between France and the US, the first game between the countries.

It’s going to be held on October 18 in Toulouse. More news on RLWC warm-ups as they come to hand.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

FAR & WIDE: Number 28

Far & WideBy STEVE MASCORD

AN interesting and mysterious yarn popped up in the wake of the United States-Samoa Test in Hawaii a couple of weekends back.

Ten members of the Samoan side, all picked from the domestic competition, failed to board the plane home. Initially, there were fears they had deliberately gone AWOL in America but a Samoan newspaper report said they checked in for the flight but were “turned away at the gate”.

Another report said one player was missing so 10 refused to leave Hawaii without him.

The Samoans won the game 34-10. We’ll try to get to the bottom of things in the coming weeks.

“It was hard work getting the visas and I’d hate to think anything had happened to endanger future teams travelling to Hawaii for matches,” said the RLIF’s Tas Baitieri.

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EXCITING news from the Philippines with the Asia Cup confirmed for a venue 80 kilometres outside Manila in October.

The Filipinos welcomed another player to NRL first grade two weeks ago – Gold Coast’s Shane Gray.

The tournament kicks off on October 19 with the Philippines taking on Japan at Clark Airforce Base. After that, Japan plays Thailand on the 21st and the Philippines play Thailand in a rematch of last year’s historic match in Bangkok, on the 23rd.

The Filipino boys arrive in Manila three days before the comp starts and will spend time coaching naval cadets who have been learning the game under former South Sydney official Tom Simpson for the last 12 months.

It is possible to see both NSW Country games on tour in South Africa and still make it to Clark for the opening Asia Cup game. We checked.

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THE latest European Shield game has seen Russia visit Belgrade and come away with a win against the Serbians.

Russia will win the Sheild if they beat Italy at the end of the month. Prop Sergey Konstantinov was the star, scoring two tries before a broken arm ruled him out of the clash with the Italians.

@RLWfarandwide http://www.facebook.com/RLWfarandwide

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

“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

DISCORD 2012: Edition 40

By STEVE MASCORD
FURTHER to our treatise last week on international eligibility, and thanks to several readers, Discord has come up with a formula that would strengthen Origin’s integrity and that of international football – at the same time.
The only reason we have residency allowing players to turn out for Queensland and NSW is that we must have it at national level – to bring us into line with other major sports.
Cut the link between Origin and Australia and you can KEEP residency for the Australian team but SCRAP it for the State sides.
What does that mean? James Tamou and Aquila Uate can play for Australia, but not Origin, unless it can be proven that their first senior rugby league after the age of 16 was in NSW or Queensland.
And, chances are, they wouldn’t want to play for Australia in that case – which helps the international game. If Origin is first senior football after the age of 16 and that’s it, it’s more fair dinkum.
But if someone qualifies under that stringent criteria and still qualifies under the (different) international rules for another country, let em play!
I want to clarify what I was saying last week – I am not proposing Sam Burgess play Origin. What I am proposing is a situation under which Nathan Cayless could have played his entire career for NSW and New Zealand – because he qualified for both.
He is a fair dinkum New South Welshman, having played his junior football in western Sydney, and a bonafide Kiwi under international rules, through parentage. So let him play for both!
That’s what’s great about the internet and social media. A column like this is just the first big Tweet and by throwing the conversation open and reading everything, answers present themselves.
I hope the ARLC is reading.
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SPEAKING of social media, I’m currently in Manila with the team that Facebook built – the Philippines Tamaraws. There was a Facebook page for the Philippines Rugby League before there was a Philippines Rugby League.
People just got on board with the idea and it has turned into a fully-kitted out team including NRL stars on tour in two countries.
I’m going to shoot a  hole in my own logic before someone else does. On one hand, I say you need to maximise the number of people who see and play rugby league as a prime directive.
On the other hand, I am defending a game last Sunday in Bangkok that attracted 150 people, as a worthwhile exercise.
Having mounted a damning argument against myself, I am now about to launch a spirited defence, also of myself.
Yes, the game itself on Sunday may not have had the impact we hoped for on possible spectators. And if the team representing Thailand had been made up of foreign based players, any positive impact would have been negligible.
But, as the score would suggest, the team consisted of local rugby union players who can be relied on to spread the word. Next year there is talk of a nines tournament and tri-series against the Philippines and Japan.