March 31, 2021 - 10:52 AM
As we celebrate the accelerated growth at the top of International Rugby League on the back of Tonga's recent victory over Australia, the nations just starting on their journey are doing all they can to not be left behind.
Every nation started somewhere, and for the Cameroon Rugby League team, it was the 2019 Middle East-Africa Championship in Lagos, Nigeria.
The game is new to the African nation, but the desire and passion we're all accustomed to down under is already there.
That's what the team needed to do - without government help or a sponsor - and it proves how serious they are about dominating the Rugby League world.
When leaving their home base in Cameroon, the trip was planned to have the team in Lagos rested and ready for their match against Morocco in just under a week.
What transpired over the next five days however, left the squad only enough time to shower, have breakfast and nurse their swollen feet before heading out to warm up.
The team got to the Nigerian border comfortably, but crossing it is where Cameroon Rugby League coach Khalil Njoya said: "the nightmare begun."
Crossing the border by car to what the team thought was an awaiting bus soon became a lengthy negotiation process with several drivers bidding for their business. As drivers resorted to lies to sell their service, a trip that Njoya was previously told would take two or three hours took closer to eight.
That's only the beginning of the unexpected delays that saw Cameron's team almost miss the tournament kickoff.
Nigeria's emergency status meant roads were littered with checkpoints. Most allowed the team to pass without issue. Others held them up under the impression this bus carrying an international sports team was flooded with cash.
Working their way through over 150 checkpoints while negotiating bribes with gun-wielding local thieves and de-escalating threats of being sent back over the border, the team later realised that those refusing to let them pass without payment were sending the word further down the road to ensure their friends received a piece of the pie.
Parked at a gas station close to midnight, the bus driver wanted the team to understand a road known for armed bandits that uses the cover of darkness to rob motorists lay ahead. With the clock already against them due to the earlier delays, the team needed to make a decision - sleep at the gas station and leave after the early morning Muslim prayer, or take the risk and continue down the road.
The decision was made to keep the motor running, and it proved decisive. Had they not left the gas station at that time, there is no way the team would have made it to Lagos in time for kickoff.
Remarkably, the team arrived in Lagos and were in high spirits on the way to the ground.
Despite their feet being so swollen they could barley slide into a boot, the playing group was enthusiastic and ready to represent their country. Njoya was happy to have arrived and to see his team excited, but knew he and his men faced another tough battle on the field:
*"The players really felt great before the game, but as their coach, I could see the fatigue within them. Adrenaline had taken over their body prior to the game but I could see the fatigue."*
A horror trip didn't stop the 17 players from putting in an incredible defensive effort in their 8-4 loss to Morocco.
*"They played the game at a very high tempo and defensively they were like a rock,"* Njoya said.
Playing 80 minutes without conceding a try wasn’t enough to satisfy the players, though.
*"Many of them cried as they knew this is what they worked so hard for, and what made it worse is that they couldn't control the external factors that led to their defeat. The fatigue led to mistakes and they gave a brave performance by not conceding. It was one for the ages."*
In their second game against Ghana, the scores were level at 4-4 in the 79th minute. As was the case earlier in the defeat to Morocco however, errors cost Cameroon victory. A late error led to a second loss despite Cameroon being the best defensive team at the tournament.
It took some time for the players to appreciate what they had done, but Njoya left the MEA Championship proud of what his team had achieved.
*"Ghana had some expats who came down from England including a professional player amongst them. This made my lads even happier. They wanted those so-called "professionals" to go home wondering why they decided to play against Cameroon and to never forget the game and they managed just that,"* he said.
While the team soon departed Lagos in the high spirits they somehow arrived with, the four-day journey home presented more challenges.
Out of money and unable to pay any more bribes, the head coach and assistant were illegally locked up with the Rugby League European Federation, Nigeria Rugby League and the Cameroonian Consulate all required to get involved before they were released.
Then forced to stop in the rain and wait to hear if the road ahead was safe, muggers boarded the bus and attempted to take what little the team had left.
When the 26 finally arrived home, their pride was swelling more than their ankles. Despite some losing their jobs while away representing their country, others without money to pay rent and the youngest in the team losing his place at school, nobody regrets their decision.
*"Every single person involved with this journey to the west came to agree that given the opportunity to do it all over, they would take that in a heartbeat,"* Njoya said.
Cameroon Rugby League is working with their government to secure funding to improve the grounds and the national competition - that being a competition that provided their international players with just three 80 minute games to prepare for the 2019 MEA Championship due to grounds as hard as concrete, injuries resulting from playing on those grounds and various time constraints.
To the surprise of locals who consider Rugby League a strictly European sport, the Cameroon media is working with the team to promote the game.
Plans are in place for a State of Origin style match between the Cameroon players in preparation for the 2020 MEA Championship in Pretoria, South Africa. They are also in the process of organising a women’s team and are on the hunt for sponsors to make what would be close to an 80 hour drive to the 2020 Championship a little easier, or better yet, raise enough funds to fly.
They've started at the bottom, but Njoya and Cameroon Rugby League have lofty goals for their future.
*"We plan world domination in this sport and we hope to take part in the next Emerging Nations World Cup and showcase our pride and skillset to the world”.*
Jason Oliver - @JasonNRL