I have long felt that rugby is a form of education, one learnt from the school of life. I have been attending this school all my life and have been privileged to travel widely throughout the rugby world.
This was initially as an unknown player back in the 70s, again in the 80s as an All Black, and the 90s and 2000s as a commentator. What never fails to amaze me are the places that the game is played.
Particularly in the last ten years, the sport has expanded rapidly.
Part of my job with the International Rugby Academy requires that I visit academies at the professional clubs of Europe every year. I cannot believe the growth of the local grounds over that period of time, most of which have doubled their capacity.
In France, the expansion of rugby towards the North, away from the traditional South-West stronghold, has been extraordinary. To have two major Parisian-based sides is marvellous.
Two years ago, I visited these clubs in Paris and could not believe the spectator numbers they were getting: in excess of 80,000 people for almost every home game at Stade Francais. This is something football at club level has never achieved in France.
Second and third tier rugby countries have had rapid expansion and are continuing to expand at a rapid rate now that rugby 7s has become an Olympic sport for males and females.
There are small rugby countries, big in population, who now see they have an opportunity for more success at 7s or 10s rugby than they can at 15s.
The Philippines is an example of this.
I have just had the pleasure of attending the Manila 10s as a guest of the Philippines Rugby Football Union. During this trip, I have presented our High Performance Development services to the PRFU and also Hong Kong Rugby Union.
The Philippines have a population of around 100 million, with 10 million ex-pat Philippino’s living around the world. The strategy for the PRFU is to harness those ex-pat Philippino’s who play rugby, many of whom are living in Australia and to a lesser degree, New Zealand.
This is quite contrary to most developing rugby nations where the game is developed at grassroots level and is funded primarily by the IRB. The Philippine’s focus is from the top down.
There are very few rugby players in this country to date – basketball is the major sport.
In the last two years, however, Philippines Rugby has managed to climb the ladder, and now having beaten Korea, are rated fourth in Asia in 7s rugby, behind Japan, Hong Kong and China.
They have built a flagship and the flag bearers are Philippino, not the ex-pat communities.
The concept is fly the flag at the top end and the players will come. And this appears to be working. As Managing Director of IRANZ, this is music to my ears.
I have long thought that to develop the game of rugby in any environment, there needs to be serious focus on the top end as well as grassroots and mainstream rugby.
The Manila 10s have been a great occasion: professionally run, organized and presented, three divisions, 8 teams in division A, 20 teams in the open division and 8 teams in the Veterans.
Entertaining rugby to say the least, with two good Australian sides working their way through to the final.
The winners were the Cape Crusaders from Queensland University. This was a well-drilled and coached side.
They proved too strong for the competition, beating a Welsh invitation side in the quarter-final, a local team in the semi-final, and an Indigenous Aboriginal side in the final.
The Cape Crusaders were a slick and well-coached combination and clearly the best team on display. The bar has been set at a surprisingly high standard from my perspective.
The real victor, of course, was rugby. Now, haven’t we heard that expression a lot in the past?
In this regard, however, I am talking about how this sport has galvanised communities. Not only the great variety of ex-pats, but also the local Philippino communities.
I see the game going from strength to strength. That valuable team concept exists where people have no option but to learn together if they want to be successful.
Next week at the Hong Kong 7s, the Philippines Rugby Union makes its debut. It will no doubt get a lesson or two from the big teams, but it is a landmark occasion for this young rugby country.
Photo via Philippine Rugby Football Union