When rugby league hit Christmas Island

Credit: Christmas Island Robbers

When you think of Christmas Island, you can be forgiven if your mind doesn’t jump straight to rugby league.

If you’d ever visited the island, however, then maybe it would.

Christmas Island is an Australian External Territory situated over 2,500 kilometres North-West of Western Australia and has a population of approximately 1,300 people.

The best thing?

They’re rugby league mad.

In 2016, residents Tim Briggs and Kele Nabukete were the driving force behind setting up a rugby league team on the Island, and with the help of NRL WA, they made it a reality.

Over the past three years, NRL WA, the Department of Sport and Recreation, and Christmas Island have worked closely to grow rugby league on the Island, and to date, have played a role in 23 Islanders picking up the game.

Briggs, who has taken on the role of Club President, Captain and Coach of the Christmas Island Robbers, says his passion for the game led to him taking action.

“I played rugby league when I was a kid. I grew up playing it and kind of missed it,” he said.

Sensing an opportunity, Briggs and Nabuteke approached the Island Sports Committee about making rugby league part of the Island’s annual Territory Week.

Territory Week is a seven-day long carnival held on the Island in the first week of October, marking when the sovereignty of Christmas Island was transferred from the UK to the Commonwealth of Australia.

One of the days is devoted entirely to sport, and after their proposal to play rugby league at the carnival was accepted, Briggs and Nabukete sourced funding and reached out to a neighbouring Island – Cocos.

The inaugural game was played later in 2016, with Cocos claiming the bragging rights.

Despite the result, Tim’s partner, Club Treasurer Vanessa Goh said she was pleased with the Island’s reaction to the game.

“It was very popular because it was something new,” she said.

“A couple of hundred people were there, which is pretty big for the Island,” she said.

Cocos again claimed top honours in the 2017 contest, but Briggs says his team are desperate to taste victory this time around.

“All of our boys who played in the Cocos game feel they have a point to prove,” he said.

“They’re just itching to get their hands on the trophy.”

As part of NRL WA’s commitment to developing rugby league on Christmas Island, PlayNRL WA Game Development Officer Ed Easter and Touch Football WA Operations Manager Warren Smiles visited the Island in August 2017 to run clinics.

“From Ed and Warren coming up, we had 30 to 40 kids getting involved in the training drills and they looked like they enjoyed it,” Briggs said.

“We wouldn’t be able to stand in front of our team and our club and be able to confidently come into training sessions and sit down at committee meetings and have the ideas and direction without those guys coming in there and giving us skills and material.

“PlayNRL is just amazing. That’s really helped set us up. It’s been a massive help.”

Goh also thanked the involvement of the Department of Sport and Recreation.

“The training equipment – we wouldn’t have been able to purchase on our own because we’re a not-for-profit and we rely heavily on donations and sponsorship from local businesses,” she said.

“It can’t be done without what’s going on with NRL WA and DSR.

“We’re just happy the community have something that they’re looking forward to and we’re building on the traditional Territory Week Sports Day.

“We’ve made it bigger and better and we can see potential for growth now for the men and the juniors and further down the track, a women’s team.”

As it stands, Christmas Island play four games a year – twice against Cocos and twice against Serco.

Plans are in place for NRL WA to visit the Island again in 2018 ahead of Christmas’ games against Cocos and Serco in August and October.