By Robert Burgin
It’s one of the best untold stories in International Rugby League – how a Gooreng Gooreng Australian Indigenous man helped sow the seeds for Brasil Rugby League 12 years ago.
Conrad Ingra was teaching English on behalf of the church when he moved to Anchieta in the Brazilian state of Espírito Santo, north of Rio de Janeiro, in 2009.
However, he soon found himself providing his students with an education about a much broader range of topics.
“It started out being about language, but it soon became more about culture,” Ingra recalled this week, just a few days shy of his 50th birthday.
“I spoke a lot about Indigenous culture and traditions. I taught them shake-a-leg, which a lot of cultures find hard to pick up, but the Brazilians, with their rhythm, got it straight away.
“Then I decided to teach them the basics of rugby league via touch football. We didn’t have a rugby league ball – you just couldn’t get them there – so we used a soccer ball and passed it instead.
“Although they wanted to kick the ball a lot, you could tell they were natural athletes. Some really big fellas, some skinny, fast ones.
“It was just a few sessions, but I guess that was the early days of rugby league there, yeah.”
Ingra, who also possesses Sea Islander heritage via Tanna Island, Vanuatu, has some gifted bloodline connections in rugby league.
Current Penrith Panthers talent J’maine Hopgood is a relative, as is former Queensland State of Origin player Les Kiss, former Dally M winner Ben Barba, and ex-NRL player Yileen Gordon.
The Coolwell family, famed in Queensland Rugby League circles, but renowned these days for being the family that helped mentor Greg Inglis, are also part of Ingra’s extended family.
“I helped out Vanuatu Rugby League a bit when it was starting out too, sending jerseys over, hosting people at my house,” Ingra explains.
“Previously, I was heavily into rugby league and the church, but over time my life has become more about dance, culture and traditional foods.
“I talked about going back to Brasil, but I started connecting with Brazilians who had arrived in Australia, showing them my country instead, taking them to traditional dance festivals…that sort of thing.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about bringing together cultures and people, whether that’s through sport, dance or food.”
Ingra, who still maintains a conversational level of Portuguese despite a dozen years away from Brasil, runs a group called ‘Murrileiros’.
The word ‘Murrileiros’ is a conjugation between Murris (a modern term for Indigenous Australians from Queensland and north-western New South Wales) and Brasileiros (the native term for a group of Brazilians).
Indeed, he is only recently back from taking “a few carloads” of Brasileiros up to experience the Daintree Rainforest, and to connect with Indigenous culture in Mossman, Kuranda and Yarrabah.
Ingra’s 50th birthday this weekend will be held on Gooreng Gooreng country near Agnes Water, and will involve Australian Indigenous, Brazilian, ni-Vanuatu and PNG food and music.
“It’s funny, the kids I taught back in Brasil in 2009 are now mostly in their 20s and have children of their own,” Ingra laughed.
“I kept in touch with quite a few. One asked me to send him a helicopter – he meant a drone – and another wanted me to bring him a surfboard. Haha.
“Generally though, the thing with Brasileiros is they are so thankful for whatever they receive. They are appreciative people.
“I am pretty surprised with how much rugby league has grown in Brasil and especially seeing the women play in the next World Cup. I’m always promoting it to my Brazilian friends.
“They’ve got a natural talent for most things they try their hand at.”
To support Brasil, the first team from South America to qualify for a Rugby League World Cup, you can purchase official merchandise by clicking this link.