Last week I sat in Sao Paulo Municipal Hall adjacent to Hugo Froes – a slightly-built, dark-skinned boy from a small country town, whose father is dying of cancer.

With the bustling backdrop of the southern hemisphere’s largest city outside the window, Hugo lobbied the council passionately and powerfully to have rugby league introduced into the schools’ program.

This, I thought, has got to be the climax to this amazing story.

If you were writing a Brazilian version of Slumdog Millionaire, there’s more than a few parallels that could be drawn.

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I’ve known Hugo six years now and, in that time, he has successfully applied for Brasil to gain entry to the Women’s Rugby League World Cup, had the sport confederated and recognised internationally, and brought together teams from a geographical area of mind-blowing expanse.


He’ll be the first to tell you he hasn’t done it all himself.

In fact, his brother Gilberto is the actual president of Brasil Rugby League, credited with much of the legal prowess and documentation that has accommodated such a rapid rise.

“Yes, we are just two simple Asperger’s boys from the interior,” Hugo quipped to me last night.

Wait a second. Asperger’s Syndrome? The same condition Greta Thunberg describes as her “superpower”.

“I would never have guessed,” I replied. “We’ve never discussed this before.”

“It’s true,” he said matter-of-factly, before thawing slightly. “Maybe this explains my lack of charisma?”

Far from that being the casual observation, Hugo is definitely someone who strikes you as being of immense character.

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Every second sentence is sarcastic. He doesn’t back down in an argument. In the hyper-masculine world of rugby league, he opens doors and gets things done despite the overwhelming odds against him.

More than one person has asked me if Hugo is the son of the person who runs rugby league in Brasil, such is his diminutive stature.

When I explain, no, this is the man who directs the show, the next thing they ask me is his age.

Hugo is in his late 20s, but could easily pass for being in his teens.

He became enraptured by Sonny Bill Williams leading the Sydney Roosters to the 2013 NRL championship, back in the days when rugby league was broadcast on Brazilian TV.

Since then, he has been unrelenting in his quest to have the game played widely in the world’s fifth-largest nation, population 210 million.

“I adore rugby league’s history…the rebel spirit,” Hugo says.

“It is something that appeals to me in every way.

“I also like the phrase ‘Think global and act local’ and I think we have to be totally focused for Gilberto and I to dream and make things happen, whether in our small town Sao Lourenco, with Brasil as a nation, or on the world stage.”

Another piece of ‘dreaming big’ fell into place recently as Brasil Rugby League was offered two parcels of land on which to establish a national headquarters.

Designs have been drawn up, discussions have been positive, and now the organisation anxiously awaits the green light from all invested parties.

This happened all within a matter of days of the schools program being approved in Sao Paulo, a city which has a municipal population of more than 12 million, a greater metropolitan area which jumps beyond 30 million, then bounds to 45 million when you count the entire state.

Behind this jackpot of sequential events however, the Froes brothers have been persevering in the face of personal heartache.

Their father has advanced cancer of both his lungs and neck. He struggles to walk and it could be a mere matter of weeks before his time is up.

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At a time when Brasil’s national women’s head coach Matt Gardner is mourning the passing of his own father, emotions have been high.

When the Rugby League World Cup delegation visited Brasil last week with the tournament trophy for a promotional tour, Hugo twice drove home from Sao Paulo to Sao Lourenco to check on his father.

It is a four-to-five-hour journey in each direction.

Hugo was getting by on three hours of sleep or less most days and by the end of a three-day showpiece – public events, the staging of the national championships, then a strategy workshop – his eyes were red raw and he struggled to stay awake.

“My father is very weak and must have immunotherapy,” he says.

“Rugby league has been a good distraction and I feel happy when I am solving things.

“If my father were only okay, this would be the happiest year of my life.”

There have been other battles too. Keeping players and clubs happy when the competition is so widely spread is a constant task.

Most clubs are around five hours from their nearest rival.

But Brasil Rugby League makes it work by taking a flexible and unconventional approach, splitting into conferences, holding cluster days, sometimes playing more than one game per day.

Nobody gets paid in Brasil Rugby League right now, whereas rugby union has many players contracted on monthly salaries.

Rugby league maintains an attraction by emphasising the culture, the inclusivity and the opportunities for the future – such as a World Cup in England.

Somewhere amid all this, Hugo has to find time for his wife Julia and to take his children to jiu jitsu classes.

At the national championships, Julia ensured they spent time together by being touch judge for eight consecutive matches. She has the patience and knees of a saint.

“But you know what is magic about this?” Hugo asks.

“We have met so many wonderful people and done things we dreamt of.

“This is something only rugby league has been able to provide.”

As I sat in Sao Paulo Municipal Hall and watched Hugo delivered his impassioned – and ultimately successful – address, what I witnessed was a calm, confident, intelligent man with a heart the size of a lion.

The boy of meagre means he sees himself as being has long since been supplanted.



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