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.
|Nigeria At The Bury St Edmunds 7s 2012|
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|
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.
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?