IT was one of international rugby league’s biggest boilovers in recent memory – and if you looked closely enough, Griffith was right in the middle of it.
The city’s name will be up in lights at this month’s Rugby League World Cup courtesy of a group of local league diehards, who have taken out a prominent back-of-shirt sponsorship with the Italian national team.
And judging by their performance in a warm-up match against co-hosts England on Saturday – in which the rank outsiders claimed a shock 15-14 win – we could be seeing plenty of it.
The deal, worth nearly $22,000, will see ‘VisitGriffith.com.au’ plastered on the back of the Azzurri’s home and away shirts for the entire tournament, and neatly links Griffith’s proud Italian heritage with the city’s passion for rugby league.
“We were talking about different companies that we could have gone with instead but we thought, why not put Griffith there?” said Sam Panarello, part of the five-man committee that orchestrated the deal.
“It’s a goodwill sponsorship. Nobody would have gotten any mileage out of it on their own but together we decided to sell the town.
“Over the years there’s been some great footballers to come from here, and many of them have been of Italian origin.
“This connects our area to rugby league and our roots. Griffith is the only place in Australia the Italian side has really connected with.”
Griffith’s affiliation with the Azzurri dates back to 1999, when Panarello was part of a group that organised for Yanco-Wamoon great Brendan DePaoli to represent Italy in the 2000 Rugby League Emerging Nations Tournament, the forerunner to the expanded World Cup.
However, after the establishment of a six-team domestic competition, Italy became eligible to participate in the World Cup itself – and will do so for the first time ever this year.
Panarello and the rest of the committee – Rob Nascimben, Pat “Big Bird” Sergi, John Bonetti and Rob Fattore – have been digging in to help ever since.
Last year, an Italy A side featuring local product Simon Bonetti took on a Bundaberg Red Cup selection in a trial match at EW Moore Oval, which stoked some prized memories for Nascimben.
“When they had the game here, there would have been around 1000 people there and they were all behind Italy – especially all the old blokes who used to go to the football back in the day,” he said.
“They don’t go anymore.
“I played for the Waratahs. Fifteen years ago, you could have called them the ‘Wogatahs’.
“Every single surname ended in a vowel. I’m proud of my Italian heritage and I’m proud I played for the Waratahs.
“It’s about that affiliation with what Griffith is all about.”
An array of local businessmen helped raise money for the sponsorship, which also included a sum from the Griffith City Council.
Warburn Estate will also be represented on the Italian shirt with their logo on the sleeve.
Panarello said without Warburn’s help in part-funding Italy’s charge towards World Cup qualification two years ago, none of this would have been possible.
“They’re really the reason why all of this has come about,” he said.