Jamaica's brave new world

John Ledger reports on how rugby league is breaking new ground and breaking down old barriers in the most unlikely of places.

AS true stories go, the tale of how four wily Jamaicans defied overwhelming odds – and sporting reality – to enter a bobsleigh team in the 1988 winter Olympics at Calgary is about as far-fetched as they come.

The subsequent Hollywood film about their exploits may have had a liberal sprinkling of artistic licence but the hugely enjoyable Cool Runnings did capture the sporting spirit of the Caribbean island.

Cool Runnings also proved that good sprinters – all four Olympians had been stars of the track – as teenagers can become good bobsleighers, a premise which is about to see Jamaica break new boundaries by joining the ever-expanding world of rugby league.

Just as none of the bobsleigh team had ever seen snow before, few if any of the players involved with the six clubs who will kick off the new Jamaican Rugby League competition on April 16 will be familiar with the nuances of a sport born in the industrial north of England in 1895. Not that a taste for Wigan pies, an ability to swear like a Hull fish wife or a tendency to bellow "Gerremonside!" at every opportunity is essential to play and watch the 13-a-side code.

Many of the officials involved in the formation of the Jamaican Rugby League Association are ex-rugby union players with the organisation who have grasped that league is perfectly suited to the physique and temperament of young men in and around the island's capital, Kingston.

"Rugby league lends itself to the Caribbean psyche," explained Paul Morris, the JRLA's director of rugby. "Jamaicans love nothing more than to put a ball under their arm and run at people.

"There are 64 guys with Jamaican ancestry who are playing, or who have played league in England at a high level, people like Billy Boston, Chev Walker, Ryan Bailey, Ellery Hanley and Jason Robinson.

"It's a very physical sport and Jamaicans take to it like naturals. We have some serious athletes: three can run 100m in less than 10.5 seconds while one second row weighs in at over 18 stones and is a sub-11 second man."

The JRLA was formed only last August after Morris and other senior figures in rugby union on the islands, including William Masterton, whose father had introduced union to Jamaica in 1947, became disenchanted with the sport's internal politics.

Masterton, who is also Master of the Royal Jamaican Polo Association and was leader of the country's sailing team in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, has already met the RFL's executive chairman Richard Lewis to outline his plans for the sport and made a massive impression.

"William was very enthusiastic and we were more than willing to lend him the support he asked for," said Lewis, who is also vice-chairman of the RL International Federation. "Strategically we want to grow the game in certain areas but we are more than happy to speak to people who want to develop rugby league off their own backs."

Morris is keen to stress that the JRLA have not sought financial assistance and recently hosted, at their expense, the RFL's director of coach education Ray Unsworth and match officials development manager Geoff Berry.

"We don't need money, what we need is the resources and expertise that will physically enable us to play rugby league," said Morris, who last month met Leeds Rhinos' chief executive Gary Hetherington to discuss the possibility of twinning arrangements with clubs in this country.

"It would be great if clubs in Jamaica could forge strong links with English clubs, who could maybe sponsor things like tackle bags and post protectors. Our clubs would be more than happy to host visitors and I'm sure many people would love to come and visit us in the Caribbean."

Just as it is elsewhere in the world, league in Jamaica is growing strong community links and is based in school and youth groups, where the JRLA have invested significant sums in laying and seeding pitches to encourage young people into sport and off the streets.

"One of our most successful clubs is Vauxhall High School in Kingston and it just doesn't come more downtown than that," added Morris.

"We've set up community action groups and the chairman of the rugby league team is also chairman of the local group, which involves the school principal, the local MP, area leaders and members of the business community.

"The whole community is now pulling together because of their involvement in rugby league. Many of them have never spoken to each other before.

"We have boys from Tivoli and Trenchtown, areas which have been at war for decades, playing league together.

"What's happening is amazing, none of us thought we could be this successful in breaking down the barriers."

Morris believes the positive response to the development work being done in the 117 youth clubs in Jamaica will see the formation of another four clubs by the end of the year with further growth on the neighbouring islands of St Kitts, Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago early in 2006.

"We want to manage the growth and with the help of the RLF, who have given us the rights to broadcast Super League games across the Caribbean, I think rugby league will take off in a big way."

john.ledger@ypn.co.uk

Anyone wanting to donate or sponsor equipment for youth rugby in Jamaica or enter into any twinning arrangements should contact Paul Morris at:

The Jamaica Rugby League Association, 44 Barry Street, Kingston CSO or at jamaica@wirlf.com.