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, 14 January 2014

From Marrakech To Glasgow

The draw for the Rugby Sevens tournament at the 2014 Commonwealth Games is now out and I suspect it contains a fair few surprises for most rugby fans.  In Pool A alongside the hosts Scotland and holders New Zealand is Nigeria who qualified following top three finishes in the last two African Rugby 7s ranking tournaments.  The reaction from, certainly the twittersphere, seems to be "Nigeria play rugby?".

This seemingly miraculous journey to their first major tournament started in 2011 when, just over a week before the ranking tournament in Marrakech, Nigeria had to pull together a team of Exiles players from London due to issues with the domestic based players getting visas for Morocco.  This team arrived in Marrakesh the day before the tournament with eleven players and the previously retired Joseph Mbu as the player/coach.  As the players introduced themselves there was a sense of disbelief that this was even happening.

Also competing in Marrakech were two teams with comparatively vast experience at the top of African 7s which included several appearances on the IRB World Sevens Series competing against the best sevens teams in the world.  Morocco and Tunisia had dominated African regional sevens for many years and had several times threatened to join African Rugby 7s success story Kenya as a core side on the IRB circuit.

Wins over Senegal and Ivory Coast and a narrow loss to a very physical Morocco team in the group set up a semi final against Tunisia on day two which certainly surprised the other teams at the tournament.  Despite a strong start the Tunisian team were just to experienced for the embryonic Nigeria side and cantered away with the match to set up the expected Tunisia v Morocco final.  Nigeria were left with an unwanted 3rd/4th play off against 1995 RWC15s qualifiers Ivory Coast.  Despite leaving it very late in the game a try from Craig Olugbode meant Nigeria picked up the Bronze Medal leaving the Ivory Coast team more than a little shell shocked.

Marrakech 2011 Squad Left To Right:  Jay Udo-Udoma, CJ Osazuwa, Sam Akinluyi, Ubaka Onyekwelu, James Doherty, Doyin Layade, Martin Oliam, Didi Akinluyi, Ari Goualin, Emma Mark (Physio), Craig Olugbode, David Akinluyi, Mark Dean (Manager).  Joseph Mbu (Seated, Player/Coach)

The team left with an unexpected opportunity.  Their performance made them eligible for the Africa Regional Qualifier for the 2013 RWC7s in Moscow ahead of teams usually considered African heavyweights like Senegal and Uganda.  It also meant that they would face the likes of Zimbabwe, Namibia and Madagasgar from the Southern competition added to Tunisia and Morocco from the North.  The problem remained however, that how with no funding could the team make the necessary progress.

With manager Mark Dean and physio Emma Mark volunteering to continue, unpaid, in their roles a new coach was appointed who would have the opportunity to select a team from all available Nigerian players. Steve Lewis, a proud Scot, who worked between Lagos, New York and London would evaluate players before selecting a final 12 man squad.  With a kit donated by Samurai Sportswear the exile players started entering tournaments in the UK and a Nigerian team competed in the open at the Dubai 7s losing narrowly in the plate final.  With training carried out at Trinity School in Croydon and on any gap on Hyde Park in the evening the exiles players started to gel as a unit as they built towards their trial tournament at Harpenden in August 2012.  In Nigeria two tournaments, at Kano in the North and Lagos in the South, provided an opportunity for domestic players to stake a claim for a place as well.  Club sides such as the Police, Cowrie, Racing and Barewa greatly improved and several players were selected for Dubai and national training squads.  The natural physique and athleticism of these players just highlighted the potential of Nigeria to go far on the World rugby stage.

The squad for the RWC qualifier differed greatly from Marrakech.  Notably several rugby league converts were recruited to the side bolstering the backline.  Wingers William Sharp and Rob Worrincy, both of whom had Super League experience, came into the side.  Unfortunately for every recruiting success another player would be unavailable due to clubs in the England putting pressure on Nigerian eligible players to maintain their EQP status to make sure the club received funding from the RFU.  Injuries also impacted heavily in key positions with a lack of depth causing problems as several first choice players being ruled out.  Steve Lewis finally settled on 10 London based players and 2 domestic players for the tournament with only five players surviving from the Marrakech squad.

Rabat 2012 Squad Back Row Left To Right: Mark Dean (Manager) David Akinluyi, CJ Osazuwa, Didi Akinluyi, Kene Ejikeme, Mark Olugbode, William Sharp, Joseph Mbu.
Front Row Left To Right: Nuhu Ibrahim, Emma Mark (Physio), Robert Worrincy, Steve Lewis (Coach), Temitope Okenla, Ejike Uzoigwe, Aristide Goualin

Lack of preparation cost Nigeria dear when they lost their first group game to Madagascar by three points. Despite wins over Morocco and Zambia this early loss meant that a semi final against favourites Zimbabwe was Nigeria's reward after day one with Madagascar going through to play Tunisia in the other semi final.

The Nigeria versus Zimbabwe semi final proved to be the de facto final.  Only a wheeled scrum on the Zimbabwe line enabling the Cheetahs to clear their lines prevented a late try for Nigeria to win them the game and qualify for the RWC.  With Zimbabwe beating Tunisia comfortably in the final it left Nigeria wondering "what if".  All that was left was to put right the errors on day one in the 3rd/4th play off,  Nigeria, now clicking as a unit, beat the same Madagascar team they had lost to earlier in the tournament with ease to yet again finish 3rd in an African ranking tournament.  What was to follow unexpectedly was that this success, coupled with a good showing by an Exiles team coached by Sam Howard in Mombasa in 2013, would qualify the team for the Commonwealth Games in 2014.

Mombasa Squad 2013 Back Row Left To Right: Sam Howard (Coach), DJ MShelia, Paul Olima, James Doherty, CJ Osazuwa, Nd Monye, Did Akinluyi, Mark Dean (Manager), Emma Mark (Physio)
Front Row Left To Right: Ovie Koloko, Ben Adubi, Temitope Okenla, David Okenla, Peter Cole, Nuhu Ibrahim, Aristide Goualin

Since then many things have changed with Nigerian rugby.  The government is now once again responsible for the game and a new board has been appointed with a new management and coaching team taking over. One thing is certain however and that the huge potential to develop and grow rugby in Nigeria is huge and that, coupled with the quality of Nigerian players overseas, means that the future for Nigerian rugby could be very bright indeed.

A few more surprises in Pool A at the Commonwealth?  Maybe.  I do suspect that the coaching teams of Canada and Scotland will be be doing a little more homework on the Nigerian side than you might have expected two years ago.

POSTSCRIPT EDIT: Sadly due to inexperience and conflict between those who took over the NRFF in Nigeria in early 2014 and the NOC, Nigeria was withdrawn from the Rugby 7s at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and replaced by Barbados.  An opportunity missed and a real blow to those who had worked so hard under the previous, successful, regime at the NRFF.