The Ramblings Of An Egg Chaser

Welcome to my blog on all things rugby related, my views are my own except where the voices in my head tell me otherwise.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Bringing The Game Into Disrepute

Matt Stevens (Photo From ESPN Scrum)
Rugby has always prided itself on it's values.  In fact in 2010 the RFU commissioned the Core Values project to define the games value system in formal terms.  The IRB also highlights the values of the game on its website. Actions that go against these core values, in the main, seem to be taken very seriously.  "Bloodgate" saw rugby legend Dean Richards banned from the game for three years and testing positive for cocaine saw Matt Stevens banned for a slightly shorter two years.  The IRB specifically refers to cocaine in the anti doping handbook on page 23 stating the sanction,as given to Stevens, is a two year ban.

HSBC Lions Shirt

So how is the IRB going to deal with one of it's main sponsors, HSBC, who are being fined $1.9 billion in the USA for laundering drug cartel money from Mexico?  How can the values of a game like Rugby Union align with a company that profits from the sale of cocaine particularly when those profits are being injected into the game (no pun intended) as sponsorship funding.  How can you ban a player for two years on one hand and then accept money that comes from the people who sell the drug they took?  In my head the conversation would go a little like this: "Look Matt you're banned from rugby for two years but thanks to the money you and your mates spunked on coke we can expand the world series!"  For those not aware HSBC are the main sponsors of the IRB Sevens World Series.  Sevens has recently been included in the Olympics for 2016 and I'm fairly certain the IOC take a fairly dim view of drug taking.  Even more high profile HSBC are also the sponsors for the British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and again I'm not sure the values of the Lions are akin to a money launderer.

So what should the IRB do?  In my opinion they just need to read their own core values.  If this was a player or coach then they would immediately take action to protect the integrity of the sport.  Rugby quite rightly sets its stall out as having a moral core compared to certain other sports.  It needs to treat this sponsor in the same way it would treat anyone else bringing the game into disrepute and lets be honest the PR value for a new sponsor stepping in to replace HSBC would make it even more attractive to companies and potentially more lucrative for the sport itself.

Monday, 26 November 2012

A Little Bit Of Perspective

I've read the reviews of England's rugby performance so far in the QBE Autumn Internationals in the press and also followed the usual hysteria on Twitter.  It strikes me that anybody not a regular follower of the oval ball could be forgiven for assuming, from the incredibly negative comments about the England side, that "current world champions England with a squad of over 50 experienced world cup winning legends with an average of 114 caps apiece" had lost to a presidents XV from a tier three nation.

In case it has escaped anyone's notice England are currently rebuilding with a very young and largely inexperienced squad following a lacklustre performance during the 2011 RWC in New Zealand.  The average age of the squad is around the 25 and the average number of caps about 20 with only 6 players in the squad with over 30 caps.  Compare that to 13 with 30+ in the Australia squad and South Africa Squads and many others in the high twenties.  The fact is that this team is pushing the second and third ranked teams in the world close after only limited preparation:  we've played Fiji and they've come in off the back of the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship.  The fact that we could have won these matches can only be a positive boost because England will only get better over the next three years as they build towards the RWC  in 2015.  I've also heard the pontificating about seeding and how England will now have a tougher draw.  News Flash.  There are only tough drawers in a RWC, to win it you have to beat the best teams in the world.  The fact that Tonga have beaten Scotland, Samoa beat last year's RWC semi finalist Wales and Australia only beat Italy by three points last weekend clearly shows that the gaps between nations are rapidly shrinking!  To suggest selecting players dropped following the 2011 RWC (remember the media frenzy about dropping them so many people bought into?) or who have chosen to make themselves unavailable for England by playing abroad in hindsight smacks a little of hypocrisy.

Chris Robshaw, one of England's youngest ever captains who has a grand total of 8 caps is being taken to task for two decisions in consecutive games that armchair pundits disagree with in hindsight.  Of course it goes without saying that had England won the restart and won the game with a drop goal he would now be regarded as a tactical genius.  Captain's make mistakes.  Some of the greatest of all time have made absolute howlers.  I take it everyone remembers Richie McCaw questionable decision making in the 2007 RWC when NZ went out in the 1/4 finals to France.   Much better that Robshaw make's them now when he can learn from them rather than in three years time in a knock out competition on home soil.

I hear rugby fans saying that rugby football shouldn't pick up bad habits from association football.  I agree.  So the next time you feel the urge to bay for the blood of a coach, player or captain because of a wave of media frenzy generated by pundits purely for profit stop and think.  It's not just the attitudes of those playing the game that put rugby union head and shoulders above other football codes but the attitudes of the supporters as well.  Do you really want England to change coaches or captains like Chelsea FC do?  The most successful club in  modern English Soccer is Manchester United and probably the main reason for that is the club's faith in Alex Ferguson.  Maybe in this case Rugby can learn from football.  Either way lets put this in perspective and appreciate the steps forward England have made and stop being hoodwinked by a media that will do anything, like say hack the phone of a murdered schoolgirl, to generate sales and boost share prices. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Farewell Olympics

What a fantastic party it's been.  The World came to London and London did not disappoint.  As it's drawing to a close after 16 days of action packed moments I've decided to put down a few of the best, the worst and the could have been moments.  These are my personal observations and I'm sure that everyone's will be different so apologies if I haven't mentioned your favourite.

What's my biggest regret?  Easy.  Rugby sevens should not have been absent from these games.  It's an incredibly exciting sport that in my opinion would have been one of the most amazing crowd friendly spectacles.  It's coming in 2016 in Rio but I wish I had had the opportunity to watch it being played under the Olympic flag at HQ.  It goes without saying that rugby displays the kind of values that just epitomises the Olympic message and those who failed to get it included in time for 2012 know that the game of rugby and the Olympics missed out on something special (just ask BoJo). 

The most un-Olympic moments - as always there have been a few but fortunately they haven't ruined the party.  I've been yet again shocked, and apologies to my many friends from down under, by the pitiful whining and sour grapes emanating from Australia regarding their medal tally.  From refusing to show the medal table to 10 (when NZ were at 10 and ahead of Oz) and stopping it at 9 in the news reports on Australian TV to the accusations of Team GB "buying success" (conveniently forgetting the Sydney Olympics) which was quite wide of the mark as the UK's investment in sport is still, per head, less than that of Australia.  Australia's commitment to sport is incredible and should be aspired to by the rest of the world but the lack of understanding about sportsmanship means that they entirely miss the point of sport in the first place.  They are joined by the likes of Carl Lewis, allegedly accusing Usain Bolt of doping, and several similar messages from American competitors and coaches about other athletes,  just come across as being very unsporting losers.  Opting to lose should not be tolerated.  It goes against everything that the Olympics represents.  I was disappointed for the badminton players expelled from the games but completely understand why the IOA took that stance.  I don't understand however why they didn't apply the same standards to the Algerian runner in the 800m and 1500m.

And my favourite moments?  It's a tough decision to name just one - there have been so many great moments and incredible scenes.  I have loved every moment starting from an amazing woman uttering the words "Good evening Mr Bond" to watching Ben Ainslie carrying the Union Flag at the closing ceremony.   For the first time every nation included female athletes which shows the progress the world has made in recognising individual rights.  Team GB have produced their best ever combined performance in living memory.  Sir Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton have been joined by another generation of British cyclists who not only beat everyone else but beat records time and again.  But it wasn't the victories that struck me but the dedication and passion to be the best and the sportsmanship to win and lose with grace.  A nation learnt what it meant to be proud again inspired by genuine role models rather than the usual shower of wannabes that infest our everyday media.  The BBC showed why, when it comes to the really important stuff, it is still head and shoulders above Sky.  I dread to think the kind of shit that Murdoch and his phone tapping minions at Sky would have subjected us to if they had been allowed to buy the broadcast rights.  

Two competitors stand out for me.  Watching Oscar Pistorius compete was an inspiration and I applaud the decision to let him take part. He gives hope to so many and I was moved to see the respect that his competitors have for him.  He was there on merit and carried himself with incredible dignity.  A true Olympian.

However the athlete whose story affected me the most was of Guor Marial, A decade ago, Marial fled a refugee camp in what is now South Sudan during the civil war that ravaged the region for more than 20 years and left more than four million nationals displaced and untold dead.  Marial lost 28 relatives during the conflict and has not seen his family for almost two decades.  

"Growing up in the war it was dangerous and hard," Marial explained in a BBC interview. "It was about survival of the fittest. If you survived one day, OK, what's going to happen the next day? Growing up there, I did not know the outside world.  When I left the village and went to the city and came to Cairo and then the United States, the world kept opening and opening. There are other things, not just about killing each other."

To see him able to compete under the Olympic flag, as an independent athlete, after just about every ordeal or trial life could throw him was awe inspiring.  He finished 47th in the Olympic Marathon, an achievement that has much more significance than his position   The enduring quality of the human spirit to rise above war and despair to achieve what must have seemed impossible reaffirmed my belief that sport, more than almost anything, has the power to inspire.
That's it, a quick run through of my memories of London 2012.  I hope it triggers a few memories of your own.  It's been a blast - see you all in four years.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

One Team One Dream - Botswana

It's been a week since I returned to the UK from the Africa Nations Cup with the Nigerian team in Botswana.  I've had a chance to reflect on what happened and evaluate what was achieved in the two weeks as well as look forward to the next steps for Nigerian rugby.

Team Photo v Mauritius 2012
The Nigerian squad, 24 players selected from players based in Nigeria, South Africa and the UK (and considerably more domestic based players than countries like Italy, Argentina and Samoa), went to Botswana with no track record and sat right at the bottom of the IRB rankings to play three test matches against teams with considerably more experience than them.  The last test match played by Nigeria, against Mauritius in 2011, saw Nigeria go down 45-10 to a much superior side and despite producing world class players to the benefit of other nations Nigeria had yet again struggled to make an impact.  This year we faced Mauritius again as well as 1995 world cup qualifiers Ivory Coast (41st in IRB rankings) and the hosts Botswana.  A difficult challenge but one the team were confident they were up for.  The players had come up with a team call: "One Team One Dream" and part of that was the belief that, despite the odds being against them, Nigeria could beat any side in the tournament.

Due to a late withdrawal of Cameroon from the competition the third test match against from Botswana was cancelled as the draw was, most unfortunately, altered to enable the tournament to proceed.  I felt at the time and still do now that more transparency is needed when decisions like that, changing a tournament draw, are taken but I also understand that the organisers were in a very awkward position and had to move quickly to make things work.  I guess a lot of this is part of African rugby's learning curve and lessons learnt in Botswana can and should be taken forward to future tournaments.

National Anthem
The first match against Mauritius saw us put early pressure on them but basic errors cost us as they scored two break away tries and raced to a 23-6 lead at halftime.  We lost 26-22 but despite the scoreline we showed everyone how far Nigerian rugby had come in 12 months.  We outscored them 3 tries to 2 and all of their tries came from our errors and not from their phase play.  Our tries came as the result of well worked phases of play and when we got it right they had no answer to our powerful runners.  At the end of the game the Mauritius players celebrated but looked more relieved than anything else.  I believe we simply ran out of time to make up for our early mistakes and five more minutes would have seen us victorious.  Imagine if we had been able to get in a few warm up games rather than having to use the first half to learn how to play together just three days after most of the squad met for the first time.

Before Ivory Coast Game
That, for me, was the kicker - We'd had virtually no preparation time together prior to the tournament and this was something that all the players commented on in their individual debriefs and the management team were painfully aware of.  The only way to address this realistically is an increase in funding to enable Nigeria to develop its domestic game, identify overseas players and run regular training camps.  In comparison Mauritius had a ten day training camp prior to the tournament and it showed.  My honest opinion is that had Nigeria been able to do likewise then we would have won both out test matches and progressed to group 1B next year.  The following information shocks everyone I've told:  We get ZERO funding from the IRB, ZERO funding from the Nigerian government, ZERO funding from the Nigerian Olympic organisation (despite Nigeria having a very realistic chance of qualifying for Rio in 2016) and we don't have a thriving domestic game to provide funding to a union either.  Every penny we spend comes from the generous support of sponsors.  Even with CAR paying for flights we have struggled. Unfortunately due to the peculiarities of CAR policy on booking flights we wasted £15,000 on flying players to Lagos from the UK to catch a flight to Botswana via SA rather than the CAR flying them direct (at the same cost to them) and leaving us £15,000 to spend on developing the game in Nigeria and preparation for the team.  Personally I intend to continue to lobby for more support from the likes of the IRB.  Just a small amount of help would reap dividends for Nigerian rugby.  I would sincerely hope they should be able to see that its a worthwhile investment in developing the global game after what has been achieved on a shoe string.

The second test saw us lose to the Ivory Coast 29-17.  They boasted players who had played in the 1995 RWC against France, Tonga and Scotland and a settled squad who had played together consistently over the last few years.  Again mistakes cost us as they matched our physicality in a way that Mauritius had failed to do.  However the fact their loosehead prop, their captain and a world cup veteran, was yellow carded ten minutes into the match for repeatedly failing to bind correctly in the scrum showed dramatic improvements in the Nigerian scrum which continued to put them under pressure throughout the game.  Not bad results from one hour long session with the pack by our forwards coach.


So what can I take from this tour?  I believe that we've more than held our own against the other teams in group 1C despite the scorelines.  The improvements in performance after very little preparation demonstrate the possibilities if we can get one or maybe two training camps in each year. The players, almost all of whom were amateur, reacted well to the environment and the large step up in standard and with experience will only improve in confidence and ability.  Nigeria has always produced exceptional players and with such a vast pool of potential players both domestically and abroad it just requires the infrastructure to thrive.  I also realised that we had started tapping into the Nigerian community.  Before the match against Ivory Coast I told the players that they weren't alone and that we'd received 1000s of messages via social media from complete strangers at home voicing their support for their national team.  Given the low profile currently of the game in Nigeria this spoke volumes of the work being done behind the scenes to improve the situation.  We also had messages of support from England stars such as Topsy Ojo, Ayo Ola Erinle and Ugochukwu Monye.  We also had vocal support from young Nigerians in the premiership academy sides in England one of whom tweeted how he'd rather play for Nigeria than England.  Players who were injured or not released by clubs to represent Nigeria also sent in messages to the players.  Rob Worrincy had just celebrated a cup win with Halifax RL but was constantly messaging us to find out how it was going.  One Team One Dream.  It's not just the players in the squad but all the guys who couldn't be there as well.

Nigerian rugby has finally arrived and the best thing about it is that is still nowhere near achieving its remarkable potential.  It's late to the party; it is still very raw but we've finally seen glimpses of what could be.  The players believe, I and the rest of the management team have always believed but now others are starting to as well.  The human potential in Nigeria itself, 160 million raw athletes, combined with fantastic players living overseas is a rugby phenomena waiting to happen.  Next year, particularly if the Africa 1C tournament is hosted in Nigeria, then with the squad we have we could realistically look at going as favourites.  Now there is something most people wouldn't have thought possible if they watched Nigeria lose 45-10 to Mauritius just twelve months ago.

One Team One Dream
We always come back to "One Team One Dream".  When people asked me what it meant they assumed it referred to the 24 players winning two test matches and continuing on a path that might lead to the RWC in England in 2015.  It is so much more than that.  It is one team.  But that team is not just the national team players it is grass roots players in Nigeria, new and old supporters, families, coaches and all those working behind the scenes to drive the game of rugby on in Nigeria.  The dream was never about world cup qualification in 2015.  That was never the point as it would be too short sighted.  The dream is bigger than any competition or player, it's about the emergence of a thriving rugby community in Nigeria, engaging young and old alike in a passion for the great game itself.  These players, who went to Botswana with personal ambitions, also went knowing they were part of something incredible.  They were there at the start of the Nigerian rugby journey and it was their responsibility to help create a legacy for Nigeria.  To me that is what it really  meant and that the dreams and convictions of a handful of players mean that there is now a real chance for Nigerian rugby to take the next step.

As the dust settles and the players reflect on the tournament I hope they are proud of themselves, I know I am incredibly proud of each and every one of them.  It wasn't perfect, our performances weren't perfect and we have a huge amount of work to do BUT without what happened in Botswana we wouldn't have the chance to take that next step.  It's a dream, but not one man's dream.  It comes from a deep rooted shared desire and belief.  Many of the players told me they know that they will probably not be involved at international level again as we move forward and in a strange way they're almost proud of that.  They know that although their international career has been fleeting it means that there was a shirt there to be pulled on by the next player to represent Nigeria.  It means that there is something for players and potential players in Nigeria to aspire to, to look up to and take on-board the values that Rugby imbues.  It means that players, like Junior Ibrahim at London Irish academy, can opt for Nigeria knowing that they aren't taking a huge chance with their international career.  They can also be part of something remarkable, a dream that is slowly becoming a reality.

t. @NigeriaRugby

Friday, 8 June 2012

Dear Referees

I love the whole ethos of rugby.  I love the fact that this ethos means that the respect afforded to rugby referees is supposed to be unconditional.  I hate the fact that I lost my temper and gave a referee an ear bashing last weekend at a sevens tournament.  I shouldn't have done it, I'm certainly not proud of the fact I did it and it goes against all the values and the ethos that I think makes the game of rugby stand head and shoulders above most other team sports.  So why did I do it?  The simple answer is that the referee made a wrong decision that cost my team the final of an extremely high standard tournament in the last play of the game.  There is no doubt he was wrong unless they've recently allowed players to be tackled when they aren't in possession of the ball and I, somehow, missed the memo.  But hang on, referees make mistakes just like players make mistakes and that's why this idea of unconditional respect is afforded otherwise you'd have the kind of farcical situations you have in association football just with much larger people who are actually allowed to knock the crap out of each other as part of the game.  I know I understand that premise and agree it is vital to the game, I am certain of that fact.  Mistakes happen and they are part of the game.  So if I understand that fact and I believe that it should be accepted as such then why did I lose my temper?  Maybe the answer isn't quite so simple after all.  I believe I lost my temper with referees because currently (particularly for rugby sevens but for most rugby outside the top two divisions) there is no genuine channel for following up on a referee's mistakes after the game.

When I was the Director of Rugby for a regional level development club one of the policies I wanted to implement was that at circa U14 level all the players would attend the entry grade referee course.  The club were in favour and, all chuffed with myself, I sought the input from several senior members of a referee society expecting a positive response and hopefully offers of free assistance running the courses at the club.  To my surprise they were unbelievably anti the whole idea to the point of being downright rude.  After I'd managed to close my jaw, get them to repeat themselves to make sure I wasn't going either mad or deaf and composed myself to take in a very different response than the one I expected, I listened as they told me that it was a terrible idea as then the "kids" would "know too much" and make refereeing their games too difficult.  They weren't joking.  I checked.  Twice.  Apparently asking someone if they are joking when they are deadly earnest is a) rude and b) shows a lack of respect.  Particularly if you ask them it twice.  Funnily enough after that the idea, much to my chagrin, never got off the ground.  A pity really as apparently the game is desperately short of referees and if my club produced just one referee from that age group each year then that might have, you know, helped a bit.  The problem is referees in general and assessors in particular treat most players and coaches like they are benignly tolerated village idiots who lack the mental capacity to understand the great game of rugby like the members of their society.  They might possibly be right but even village idiots can download the free IRB laws app onto their smartphones complete with video clips showing how the IRB is giving guidance on law interpretation and then notice when that isn't quite what's happening during a match. It almost seems like they try and make refereeing a dark art - a classic case of the cliché "knowledge is power".  To me getting as many people involved in the game as educated in the game and its laws and ethos will mean that you'll get fewer mistakes and more people singing off the same songsheet

My worry is that, because there is no perceived route for grievances to be raised and a referee's shortcomings to be addressed, more players, fans and coaches will resort to giving the referee a mouthful and that can only be bad for the game of rugby.  The closed ranks, "the referee is always right" attitude where referee societies talk down to the players et al just doesn't work any more.  If you want to maintain the game's values in a rapidly evolving, media centric knowledgeable rugby society where perceptions of the referee are damaged by a perceived lack of engagement on disputes raised after games then there needs to be a clearly defined method for communication that is accessible to all.  We need to accept that referees. like players and coaches, make mistakes and that they will be looked at after a game if necessary and that raising them with the referee will lead to a grown up discussion rather than a school teacher to pupil lecture.  (strangely enough a large number of referees are school teachers........) An open transparent process is needed so that when referees make mistakes, and they will, they are helped to identify why and how to improve their own performance.  With the knowledge that this can happen I think all concerned will be more forgiving of mistakes on the field and continue to play and watch the game in the spirit it is intended.

So back to my story, what would have been the outcome I'd have wanted at that sevens tournament?  (Apart from the result being altered of course.....)  Actually it would have been fine if the referee has simply admitted he could have been wrong.  I don't expect referees to be infallible but I do expect them to be honest with themselves about their performance as without that they undermine the respect they are quite rightly afforded to the detriment of the game.  As for me I suspect I owe that referee an apology for my behaviour and I hope he'll accept the time honoured method of doing that by letting me buy him a beer the next time I see him.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Why Are You An Amateur Rugby Club?

So who are you?  What defines your rugby club?

When I asked this question, to a a variety of rugby club members at around fifteen clubs between tiers 5 and 8, the most common answer was “We are an amateur club.”  This on the face of it sounds like a reasonable answer, it certainly occurs regularly in the media and in blanket RFU statements.  More interestingly it was certainly accepted as the right answer by almost everybody I spoke to but I wondered if we put that answer under a little scrutiny, does it stand up?

OK, your club is amateur, but is that really “who” the club is.  That would be like someone defining themselves entirely by producing a bank statement.  Who the club is, or in marketing speak "The clubs brand" is the club’s personality and this is made up of more than just one aspect.  In my opinion the term Amateur is just one definition of a club’s financial status and as such does not give anyone the faintest idea of what the club stands for, what its aspirations are or what its very reason for being is.  

So if being amateur as a tag is important to so many people without it actually giving an answer to the question perhaps we should look a why your club is amateur in the first place.

Why Are You An Amateur Club?

So you’re an amateur club playing mid level rugby but why are you an amateur club?  Why are you playing your (1st team) rugby at this level?  What do you offer as a rugby club?  What are your aspirations?  There are literally dozens of questions like this that all lead to one simple thing, your club’s identity or brand.  I would suggest that given the most common, seemingly incorrect, answers given What you need to clearly understand is why you are an amateur club before you go any further.

So, why is your club amateur? 

The answer isn’t “because we believe that rugby and/or this club should be amateur”. 

It seriously isn’t.

It isn’t because rugby is not an amateur sport and wishing will not make it so again. 

It isn’t because if it were, those arguing this would not watch, read about, allow the club to be a member of, or participate in any rugby that wasn’t amateur.  I have yet to meet anyone who does take that stance. 

Trying to claim that one rugby club should be amateur on some pretention of ethical or philosophical grounds whilst watching, and therefore condoning, another being professional is hypocritical at best.

Lastly it isn’t the answer because, as previously mentioned, that statement is a matter of financial status and the club should have a purpose and ethos that transcends its financial status.  Something like financial status can change over time but a club’s identity or brand should remain constant. 

A change in financial status does not = a change in ethos


A club currently playing in London League 1 who were completely amateur have recently moved into the realms of a semi-pro club. 

Their aim (their ethos and the club’s raison d’être) is to provide good standard rugby for all playing members but also to develop players and help them achieve their potential.  Due to a change in financial situation they have recently taken on two paid player/coaches (cost circa £16,000) to further this aim as they have a benefactor who has agreed to fund this. 
This change from amateur to semi-pro simply reflects a change in the clubs financial footing whilst maintaining the aims and focus of the club.

Dean Richards whilst Director Of Rugby at Harlequins insisted that ALL players buy their opposite number a drink after the match and mingled with club members in the bar.  His reasoning was that clubs could be professional without losing what it meant to be a rugby club.

The Answer

The real answer to why your club is amateur is almost always the same. 

You do not have the funding to do otherwise. 

There are various reasons for why this is the case from the obvious fact that your club is not high enough up the leagues to get that level of financial support from the RFU to club specific reasons like low attendance levels of spectators and limited paying club members. 

Obviously this can change and if the financial situation alters to an extent where the club can look at moving to a semi pro or professional footing then sit down and start this process again.  My only advice in this instance would be to protect the club’s ethos and identity and to ensure the funding is sustainable.  A sugar daddy is all well and good however it has almost lead to historic clubs like London Scottish, Richmond, Birmingham Bees and London Welsh ceasing to exist.  Recently Old Dunstonians in tier 7 have bought league survival for a single season at the detriment to the clubs finance in the long term.  Make sure that money spent, unless on capital projects, is sustainable in at least the medium term.

Why Does It Matter?

Once you truly understand why you are an amateur club you can look at what your club’s purpose or raison d’être is without the baggage of this frequently misused tag which doesn’t define your club and usually covers up the fact that you lack a coherent identity.

Dark Horses Or Black Stallions?

If you’ve been at any of this season’s early UK rugby 7s tournaments or were fortunate enough to go to the Dubai 7s last December, you might have noticed that the Nigerian national team were in the programme. What you may not know is that last year Nigeria, with less than two days preparation and a squad thrown together at the last minute, managed to finish third in an IRB rugby sevens tournament in Morocco. 

Nigeria At Marrakesh 7s 2011 
You also might not know that there have been Nigerian players competing at the very top level for the last four decades. When you hear the names of such rugby luminaries as Steve Ojomo, Adedayo Adebayo, Victor Ubogu, Ugo Monye, Ayoola Erinle and Martin Offiah, you realise that the previous lack of international rugby in Nigeria has meant that exceptional Nigerian players have had to opt to play for other nations to fulfil their potential.  

You might ask yourself “why is the Nigerian national team playing over in the UK?” The main reason is that most of the top class players eligible for Nigeria live in the UK. The Nigerian Rugby Football Federation (NRFF) currently has 14 clubs playing in Nigeria, giving it a remarkably small pool of players to draw from. In contrast, there are hundreds of clubs in London alone, most of whom have at least a Nigerian winger. The UK has traditionally been home to a large ex-pat Nigerian community and it made sense for the NRFF to tap into this player pool and include them in the  national squad where possible. This was a huge step forward for Nigerian rugby as it meant that players like David Akinluyi (Northampton, Cambridge and Esher) and Joseph Mbu (London Wasps and Birmingham Bees) could realistically opt to play for Nigeria. Nigeria are, of course, not the first nation to have utilised large numbers of eligible players based overseas; Argentina, Tonga, Morocco and Samoa have been predominantly made up of players who ply their trade outside their countries’ domestic leagues. David Akinluyi had actually been training with the England 7s squad prior to this development; his decision to play for Nigeria, based on the progress made by the NRFF, is certainly a coup for Nigerian rugby.

Nigeria At The Bury St Edmunds 7s 2012
At the IRB & Confederation Africaine Rugby (CAR) tournament in Marrakesh the NRFF were refused entry Visas by Morocco. This prevented any home grown players flying over from Nigeria to play in the tournament. The only way to compete was to bring a totally different squad out from the UK. Luckily, we found eleven players who could get the time off work and flew to Morocco the next day. Nigeria (ranked
5th from bottom in the world rankings) achieved a 3rd place finish, beating Senegal (ranked circa 53rd), Ivory Coast (ranked circa 46th) and Burkino Faso. They only lost to Morocco and Tunisia - both of whom have extensive experience as guest teams on the IRB World Series – who went on to contest the final. To put this in football parlance imagine East Timor beating Ukraine, Belgium and Wales at a FIFA ranking tournament.

One team one dream
Such an achievement is even more impressive as everybody involved is a volunteer. From the head physio, Emma Mark, to the coaching team of Steve Lewis, Joseph Mbu and Martin Olima; everybody is committed to Nigerian rugby development and give their own time and effort to make it happen. But it’s not just those directly involved with the NRFF who are instrumental in the team’s progress. Without the support of the likes of Andy “Boyo” Howells (HFW Wailers), Adam Hurst (Apache) and Terry Sands (Samurai 7s), who help identify and give grass time to Nigerian players like James Doherty and the Ajuwa & Akinluyi brothers, the team would struggle for top level experience. Without Samurai Sportswear donating a kit for this summer, Nigeria, who have no IRB funding or Sponsor, would not have had a playing kit. This was the first time Nigeria actually had their own kit; previously using old regional kits from Nigeria. Having their own national rugby kit was a big deal! The pride on the players’ faces when they pulled on their nation’s playing kit at Bury is something I won’t forget.

So what next for Nigerian Rugby? It’s a full year; looking at prospective players in rugby 7s tournaments in Nigeria and the UK, and the two IRB competitions being run by CAR. It seems incredible that Nigeria will be participating in two IRB tournaments:

• The African Cup in Botswana for the 15s team (July);
• IRB + CAB tournament in Morocco for the 7s team (September).

The 15s will play three full international test matches against Mauritius, Cameroon and Botswana. A large number of newly capped players will come from the UK. If the team fulfil even some of its potential, they will have the opportunity in 2014 to play for the honour of participating in the RWC in England in 2015. Nobody involved with the NRFF believes that this is anything other than a long shot but, for the first time, they don’t believe it is impossible either. For the short game, the chance of making a RWC is even greater having just one tournament to go for qualification. At the end of September this year the Nigerian 7s team travel to Morocco to see if they can better the performance that saw them finish 3rd last year and qualify for the Rugby World Cup 7s in Russia in 2013.  They will be up against teams like Morocco, Tunisia, Zimbabwe and Namibia all of whom have much more experience, player depth and funding.
Dark horses? Black stallions certainly. It is my belief that, if not in 2013 or 2015, it won’t be long before you see the Nigerian rugby team at a World Cup or participating in the Olympic Games. Given the fantastic reaction from the rugby community for the Nigerian team, that can only be a good thing for rugby.

Whatever happens next the Nigerian rugby team, and its fantastic friends & supporters, will continue to add to the UK circuit; enriching the rugby scene and acting as ambassadors for their country and the game. I look forward to seeing you around the tournaments and celebrating the great game of rugby - Nigeria style. As you’ll hear from every member of the squad and management team, this progress is all down to one very simple thing: “One team. One dream.”

One final thought: as Nigerian Rugby moves forward to hopefully fulfil its huge potential, the next Ubugo, Ojomo, Monye, Erinle or Adebayo might just opt to play for Nigeria. Wouldn’t that be something for the development of rugby as a truly international sport?