Rugby and the Red Island: an unlikely union

True Tah Roar Rookie

By True Tah, True Tah is a Roar Rookie

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    The majority of the nations where rugby can claim to be a mainstream sport also happen to be relatively well-developed and prosperous nations. In fact, the only exceptions to this rule which readily spring to mind would be the island nations of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

    But you can add another island nation to this list, albeit in the Indian Ocean and with none of the impact on the world stage as their Pacific cousins: Madagascar.

    The history of rugby on the Red Island, so called because of its red soil, commenced with French railway engineers playing the game around Antananarivo, the nation’s capital (given the current state of the Malagasy rail system, maybe those French engineers spent too much time playing rugby!)

    Indeed, rugby is perhaps one of the few legacies of an otherwise brutal French colonial rule which the Malagasy look upon favourably.

    However, for many years, the sport was restricted to the urban slums of Antananarivo, with players descended from slaves and largely mistrusted and ignored by wider Malagasy society.

    This all changed in 2005.

    The catalyst for this change was the 2005 Africa Cup, where the Madagascar side (named the Makis, after the Malagasy name for the ring tailed lemur) made the final.

    They went down to Morocco.

    However, simply making the final was a massive achievement for both the Makis and the Malagasy people, and following this, rugby clubs sprang up throughout the island.

    Some may argue that this would be a worthless tournament played by nations who are unlikely to ever hold the William Webb Ellis Cup. Such a view would also be totally ignorant of the circumstances surrounding this achievement by the Malagasy, and African rugby generally.

    Madagascar is one of the poorest nations in the world, where most of the population live on less than US$1 a day.

    Added to this, Madagascar hasn’t really tasted much success, either on or off the sporting field in its history.

    However, what I find more remarkable is what the Federation Malagasy de Rugby has achieved following this result, against all odds. They have been able to implement a national club championship called the Top 8, where the best clubs from the various regional leagues meet to decide the rugby champion of the Island.

    In 2007, the Top 8 averaged around 8,000, with the final selling out the Stade Muncipal de Mahamasina, capacity of 30,000.

    Games involving the Makis generally sell out, such as a match against Botswana earlier this year. The Top 8 is extremely well covered in the national press, and games are shown on national television.

    The players may not have the polished skills, muscled physiques, training facilities or pay packets of their brethren plying their trade in the Top 14 or Super 14. In fact, having seen a game on TV, I’m not even sure if the Top 8 is played under the ELVs.

    But what is evident is the willingness of these guys to play above their weight, play with total abandonment of their own safety and run the ball.

    For all the talk about the ELVs, New Zealand being the wrong choice for 2011, and Northern clubs signing up the best Southerners, it is clear that the IRB is doing some good work in spreading the rugby gospel.

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    The Crowd Says (9)

    • January 17th 2009 @ 2:33am
      Steffy said | January 17th 2009 @ 2:33am | ! Report

      Rugby league or rugby union?

    • January 17th 2009 @ 6:52am
      Sherry said | January 17th 2009 @ 6:52am | ! Report

      First rate post, True Tah. Good to get news of rugby in the less traveled parts of the world.
      For those that don’t know this beautiful place, it’s the fourth largest island in the world – over twice as big and 4 times the population of NZ. And a cold Three Horses, a Dutch beer, is pretty good with grilled shrimps dipped in sakay sauce which is pretty hot itself.

      Keep up the island rugby posts, TT. I’ve seen rugby on a whole bunch of islands, including Jamaica and Trinidad where Allsopp’s is the rugby beer.

      Is that an idea for a Roar post, the best beers to drink while watching rugby in out of the way places?

    • January 17th 2009 @ 6:59am
      Crosscoder said | January 17th 2009 @ 6:59am | ! Report

      Fair point as Steffy asks.Is it rugby union or rugby league?.At times the name rugby is rather confusing .The Victorians call both codes rugby,as at times does CNN,as do a some people in the Nthn Hemisphere.
      They also play rugby in Jamaica:rugby union and rugby league.
      Give the codes their correct titles.

    • January 17th 2009 @ 9:41am
      True Tah said | January 17th 2009 @ 9:41am | ! Report

      Steffy it is rugby union that they play in Madagascar

      Sherry – didnt realise THB was a Dutch beer, but jesus it tasted nice on a hot day!

    • Columnist

      January 17th 2009 @ 10:23am
      Spiro Zavos said | January 17th 2009 @ 10:23am | ! Report

      wouldn’t it be good if next year or the year after the organisers of the IRB SevensRugby (union not league) Adelaide tournament invited a team from Madagascar.
      I was at the brilliant IRB SevensRugby tournament in Wellington a few years ago when my told me that the team warming up to play Australia, the Kenyans, would win against one of the tournament’s best sides. ‘What makes you so certain of that result?’ I asked her.
      ‘They’ve got great butts,’ she insisted.
      And she was right on both counts. The Kenyans went on to defeat the Australian side, much to the enjoyment of the spectators. Kenya has subsequently repeated the performance.
      Perhaps a Sevens side from Madagascar can emulate the Kenyans, if they’re given a chance.

    • January 17th 2009 @ 12:11pm
      sledgeandhammer said | January 17th 2009 @ 12:11pm | ! Report

      There have been a couple of excellent articles on Madagascar rugby which I have given links to below:

      For anyone interested in researching rugby in the second tier nations go to the FIRA website and look at the forums:

      I love this quote from the coach of neighbouring island Reunion when they faced Madagascar for the first time:

      “The first surprise was the size of the crowd. Over 4,000 enthusiastic, noisy and competent supporters had crowded the little stand, by far the biggest crowd we had ever had for our matches.
      The second surprise was the size of the Malgache players. As we talked amongst ourselves after the warm-up, they were not going to be a problem given their size and bodyweight – not taller than 175 cm and heavier than 70 kilos.
      How wrong we were in our assessment was to be the third and the biggest surprise of a rather emotional day.
      The velocity and the strength of the Malgache players defied their slight frame, while their tackling was ferocious to say the least. They counter-attacked every time they laid their hands on the ball and their unorthodox style and enthusiasm made us watch in utter amazement. Then, a few minutes before the end of the match, which we were winning narrowly, the crowd left the stand to surround the playing surface.”

      Regarding rugby in Africa, according to the President of CAR, Aziz Bougja “the two most significant allies to rugby’s development in Africa have, along with the IRB, been South Africa and France.”

      Another country that has done very well in recent years in Africa (beating both Kenya and Madagascar this year in 15s) is Uganda. It would be interesting to find out more about their history and playing strength.

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