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Portuguese teen keen to play rugby the Kiwi way

Joao Belo (PHOTO: Cecile Meier)
Here to learn: Portuguese teen Joao Belo is the youngest overseas rugby player to train with Christchurch’s International High Performance Unit. (PHOTO: Cecile Meier)

Portuguese teenager Joao Belo’s favourite rugby team may be Australia but for learning how to play the game, New Zealand is “number one”.

The captain of Brazil’s under-19 team, Belo, a halfback or first five- eighth, is studying at Christchurch Boys’ High and getting coaching from the Canterbury International High Performance Unit (IHPU) thanks to a partnership between the Canterbury and Brazilian rugby unions.

He says it is an “amazing opportunity”. “I’m really happy to be here and I think I’m going to learn a lot this year.”

But how he does rate rugby at Boys’ High?

“If there was a game between my team in Brazil and them, Boys’ High would win,” Belo said.

“Here, the players grow up hearing rugby, seeing rugby, playing rugby, throwing rugby balls at each other. In Brazil, the first time a lot of the rugby players saw a rugby ball, they were 15.”

After three weeks in Christchurch, Belo has settled into the Boys’ High side.

Team-mate Ben Hamilton said Belo was initially quiet but opened up to the team when they started playing rugby.

“He’s a really nice guy and definitely adds something to the team.”

Belo’s shy smile contrasts with his tough style on the field.

Canterbury Rugby IHPU manager John Haggart described him as a “fierce tackler”, and Hamilton was impressed with Belo’s speed. “He’s got such fast feet that he breaks tackles.”

Belo started playing for Brazil in 2012 after moving from Portugal to Sao Paulo. His achievements have made his dad, an All Blacks fan, very proud.

“He loves that I play rugby and he loves New Zealand, so he was really pleased,” Belo said, before admitting that the All Blacks were not his favourite team.

“It’s Australia,” he said, almost apologetically.

Despite this, Belo wouldn’t swap his stay in Canterbury, where the rugby culture is so much bigger.

He misses friends and family, but not Sao Paulo, with its buildings, pollution and traffic.

Brazilian rugby

Haggart said Brazilian interest in rugby started late but was growing, with preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Canterbury Rugby sent two coaches last year to support the national Brazilian team.

Boys’ High welcomes promising international rugby players every year, but Belo is the first to come through Canterbury Rugby.

The teen describes the Brazilian game as more individual than New Zealand’s more team- based approach and puts that down to the more highly skilled players in New Zealand.

“Here I run as fast as I can and when I pass the ball, the other players are already organised; in Brazil it’s not like that.”

In addition to three training sessions a week at Boys’ High, Belo trains with the high-performance coaches at Rugby Park, the Crusaders’ home training base, every Monday and Friday.

Haggart said he was a very promising player. “He might become a superstar one day.”

Belo, however, is not one to boast. He’s here to learn and improve, and takes the task seriously.

“I know I have to be a lot faster and have more resistance.”

_Cecile Meier for The Press