A whole new ball game
Feature story submitted by Latin American Rugby League Inc showing that anyone can take up the game of rugby league - no matter who they are or where they come from.
On Gil Marconi’s family farm in Brazil there are leopards, armadillos and capybaras.
In December, it took her six flights to return from her isolated hometown close to the Paraguayan and Argentinian borders to her newfound abode in Brisbane.
Indeed, it’s a world away both physically and figuratively for the West Brisbane Pink Panthers rookie.
As if the cultural adjustment wasn’t already enough, she has taken up the sport of women’s rugby league just months shy of her 34th birthday.
“I had no idea what rugby league was until I watched my first game in Australia in 2012,” said Marconi, who made her debut for the Panthers against Easts Tigers at Coorparoo today.
“My partner took me to an All Stars game and Wally Lewis was being interviewed on the sideline just metres in front of me and I had to ask who he was,” she said.
“However, I absolutely adore the sport now. I follow all the NRL players on Instagram, I have my favourites like Johnathan Thurston, Sam Thaiday and Greg Inglis, I’ve been to State of Origin games, the NRL grand final and the World Cup.
“My friends will be convinced I’m crazy but I think rugby league has overtaken football as a passion for me, which is not something you say lightly if you are Brazilian.”
Marconi admitted she would start her rookie season off the pace and was still learning the finer details and tactics of the sport.
Some aspects she has been able to adapt from European handball, which she played at a regional level in Brazil.
But other facets, in particular the names for patterns and movements, still catch her off-guard, despite the fact that she can speak five languages.
“Australians are really funny in that respect. They will just yell ‘hands’ or ‘unders’ and everybody follows each other and knows what to do, but it could mean anything to me,” she laughed.
“Honestly though, the coaches and other girls from Wests have been amazing and very patient with explaining things to me.
“There’s not too many sports you could walk into as a complete rookie and have Australian representatives like Heather Ballinger playing alongside you and giving you tips.
“Even if I don’t get to play much this year, I love coming to training and being a part of the club atmosphere.”
Marconi has previously played several seasons of touch football and has trained with the men from the GYG Latin Heat side – a team for Latin Americans living in Australia.
She hopes more Latinas will follow suit so the female game can grow internationally in years to come.
However, most people don’t pick that Marconi is of Brazilian stock, as her pale skin and blonde hair belies her geographic roots.
“People think all Brazilians are tanned and dark-haired, but when I first came to Australia I thought everybody would surf and have blonde, curly hair, so I guess stereotypes are everywhere,” she said.
“Especially in the south of Brazil it’s a big mix. My father’s parents were Italian and my mother’s parents were Portuguese and African … not many people could pick that.
“Rugby league is great in that respect too. I come to training and there’s people from all different backgrounds having a laugh together and I feel like I learn a little about their culture at the same time.
“The thing I love most though is that I feel the sport is very honest. You have to put your whole body and mind into it or people can tell you are not committed.
“I still enjoy watching football, but I think now I appreciate how much more involved you are in rugby league, and that brings another level of intensity.”
Marconi said her family still found it difficult to understand her new passion as they spoke no English and there was no TV coverage for NRL in Brazil.
Even finding a rugby ball in western Brazil can be difficult and the closest available in many instances is a gridiron football.
However, with her parents’ names – Jorge and Ercilia – tattooed on the same forearm she will cart the ball forward with this weekend, there will be a little bit of home inspiring her in this exotic pursuit.