Meet Juan David Espinal, who grew up in Colombia having never heard of Rugby League, and went on to captain his country, having built a new life in Australia.
Washing dishes to make ends meet and speaking not a word of English, were some of the hurdles current Colombian and Latin Heat Rugby League player Juan David Espinal faced when he arrived in Australia 7 years ago.
Having defied the odds to make a better life in arguably one of the luckiest countries in the world, the proud South American forward has never looked back since arriving in Brisbane.
The powerfully built Latino is one of several South American players who now call Australia home.
Many of these Latinos have become internationals either playing for the Latin Heat international side or other South American countries such as Uruguay, Chile and Colombia.
Espinal is one of those players.
“I was born and raised in the small town of Jerico.
“Both of my parents are proud Colombians and worked very hard to raise me.
“Many people might not be aware that Jerico is a town, municipality and Catholic bishopric all rolled into one in the Colombian department of Antioquia.
“In these parts, Rugby League is not heard of and you either play soccer or rugby union.
“I started to play soccer at an early age but hated it, so decided to play rugby union which I preferred.
“When you grow up only watching these sports and playing them, it’s hard to imagine that I would end up playing Rugby League.”
But that’s just what Espinal did when he headed down under.
“I’ll be honest with you, the first three years of my arrival in Australia were tough.
“I mean I was basically starting from scratch with nothing in a country that I couldn’t speak their language.
“I was washing dishes, cleaning and studying to learn a language I had no concept of.
“I was accepted into Australia on a student visa and had to learn very quickly in how to speak English, otherwise I would not have survived.”
Having dabbled in University in his homeland, Espinal was also studying for a degree in Biochemistry in Australia working long hours and surviving on limited sleep juggling his degree as well.
Having attained his degree, Espinal now supplements his Rugby League career working as a Biochemist at the Princess Alexandria Hospital in Brisbane.
“I’m very proud to say I worked hard to get my education in order and have a good job now here in Australia.
“I must say the opportunities I have been given to me have been a gift from god.
“I love Australia and the many doors that have opened for my wife and I is something I will always be grateful for.”
Opportunities would come again in the way of taking up Rugby League in the most curious circumstances.
“After a while, when my English became better, I wanted to join a team sport just like I was playing back home.
“I managed to put a post on the South American Facebook page inquiring about playing rugby.
“Little did I know that the post would lead me to playing Rugby League and change my life forever.
“I was put in touch with the Latin Heat Rugby League side founded by Robert Burgin after one of the Latin Heat players by accident saw my post.
“I spoke with Rob over the phone who then set up a meeting for me with some of the Latin Heat guys.
“I then met with those guys in a small Mexican cantina here in Brisbane over lunch and they discussed what the Latin Heat was all about.
“I didn’t have a clue what Rugby League was before this and they then invited me to come and train at a small park in the inner-city suburb of West End.
“I remember it only being only a small blade of grass to show what skills I had.
“I did enough on that small patch of grass to be then welcomed into the Latin Heat organisation.”
The Latin Heat Rugby League is a multi-national Rugby League team focused on providing people of Central and South American residency or heritage a chance to play international Rugby League and help kick-start competitions in each individual Central and South American nation. Latin Heat was initially formed from Australian-based Latinos but has since expanded to incorporate players from across Latin America, USA, UK and New Zealand.
After starring for the Latin Heat in multiple internationals, Espinal went from player to visionary who decided to start a Colombian based team himself.
Having lured many of the South American community not only in Brisbane, but also in other parts of Australia, there was enough interest from the Latinos to get the Colombia project off the ground.
“I wanted a chance to represent my heritage and country of birth, so I thought maybe I can get a team of Colombians together to branch away from the Latin Heat, but in a good way.
“We were part of history in 2019, when we took on the Indian Jungle Cats in their debut international in Brisbane.
“That was a watershed moment for the Colombia Rugby League I believe.
“Back in 2016 when I kickstarted the Colombian side, I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be playing Rugby League on the other side of the world representing my country of birth.”
The first Rugby League team representing Colombia was organised by the Australian-based Latin Heat Rugby League in 2016, with a team of Colombian expats taking part in various competitions and small-sided matches against other teams representing Latin American nations.
The first Colombian Rugby League team, the Nativos, was established in the city of Antofagasta, Chile in 2017.
Colombia made their international Rugby League debut in the inaugural Latin American Rugby League Championships held in Los Angeles, Chile in November 2017, losing 36-6 to Argentina in the first RLIF-sanctioned international on South American soil.
“We’ve come a long way since our debut back in 2016, many of the Colombian guys are now well-established players in the local Brisbane competition.
“I think you can say we are progressing nicely.”
Burgin would also be responsible for Espinal washing up at the West Mitchelton Panthers Rugby League club in Brisbane.
“Rob arranged for me to join the Panthers so that I would get used to how the Australians played the game.
“It’s a tough competition in Brisbane, but It has made me tougher mentally and I’ve increased my skill level dramatically.
“To make my transition to the club a lot easier, Rob also arranged for a few of the other Latin Heat guys to join the Panthers, so there was a real South American feel to the club.”
Espinal’s passion for Rugby League is infectious to say the least.
The powerfully built forward is paving the way forward for the next generation of Latino Rugby League players.
Espinal’s presence alone in either the Latin Heat or Colombian sides is enough for the younger players to seek guidance from their courageous captain.
“I simply want to expand and lead from the front in promoting South American Rugby League.
“Rob Burgin has laid the foundations through hard work and I believe we owe it to him to continue to develop players in becoming bigger and better on the international scene.
“We have so much respect for Rob that we name one of our tournaments back home in South America the Rugby League Burgin match.”
Forging ahead is something Espinal is not afraid to do with instigating a Latin American tournament to be played back in his hometown of Jerico later this year.
“I thought why not show our appreciation for the supporters back home by having our own tournament played in our own backyard so that people can see us play live instead of having to watch footage on the internet.
“I have organised a Latin American Tournament for November this year which will comprise of an all-South American feel.
“We already have Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Argentina on board and we are waiting to hear back from Brazil.
“I’d also like to get a Latin American side together for the tournament to add a nice finishing touch for our supporters.
“We have had previous tournaments like this one before called the Copa Sudamericana tournament that have been a real success story.
“The tournament I am organising in November will be more special to me being played in my hometown of Jerico.”
The Copa Sudamericana Rugby League is an annual tournament coordinated by the Federacion Latino Americana de Rugby League.
Starting in 2016 as a Nines tournament in Argentina, the 2019 event was the fourth iteration of the regional tournament.
“I think South American Rugby League is making a small dent on the international scene.
“It’s only baby steps for us now, but slowly and surely, we are making some ripples internationally. You must only look at the good things that Chile and Argentina are doing and the Colombians, it’s making great progress.
“People must realise that a few years ago nobody knew anything about Rugby League in South America, but now it’s slowly getting a following because it’s something new and exciting. We are now coming up against some formidable opposition on the international scene which is exciting times.”
Reflecting on his journey from cleaner to captain of Columbia is something Espinal gets emotional about when he speaks.
“My life has changed all because of Rugby League.
“I will always be grateful and indebted to the sport of Rugby League.
“I want to ensure South American Rugby League survives well into the future.”
Colombia’s captain courageous has certainly played his part in that happening.
This feature was first published in Rugby League World, Issue 468, April 2020