MEXTED: I’m excited about the growth of rugby in smaller nations

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    Phillipine Volcanoes Rugby Union. Photo via

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    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

    Roar columnist and former All Black great, Murray Mexted, is the Managing Director of The International Rugby Academy (IRANZ), the leading global Rugby Academy. IRANZ offer an independent high performance pathway for coaches, players and teams worldwide. More details here.

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    The Crowd Says (33)

    • March 22nd 2012 @ 5:32am
      kingplaymaker said | March 22nd 2012 @ 5:32am | ! Report

      I think rugby could be light years ahead of where it is at the moment if it weren’t for the incompetence of the IRB and the desire to keep weak nations out of elite rugby.

      The draw at the last RWC and the next one favours the strong nations so much that no sport with a desire to spread the game could have produced it.

      There seems to be no concept that by putting say Super rugby teams in new countries or Rabo prodirect 12 league teams in new countries, the game could grow in the ‘top-down’ way described here. Wouldn’t a Magner’s team in Tibilisi or Bucharest, or a Super team in the U.S. or Tokyo or Vancouver or Moscow revolutionise the game there? Why don’t the IRB think of this?

      Why are there only 20 teams in the RWC, when the next four in the world ranking are as good as the weakest four in the tournament? Wouldn’t 24 teams allow 6 pools with no mid-week matches for anyone?

      Aren’t Georgia as strong as Scotland and Italy, or wouldn’t they be with regular international competition, and therefore why aren’t they in the Six Nations? Because they’re a poor and small country and wouldn’t provide enough money?

      The IRB is simply an institution designed to keep the current rugby nations powerful and to shut out the weaker and poorer ones: it has no interest in expanding the game and every interest in stopping it from expanding.

      • March 22nd 2012 @ 7:00pm
        Onor said | March 22nd 2012 @ 7:00pm | ! Report

        give it time.. it takes generations to get to be good.. its learning.. more learning and more learning.. form one generation to the next. you dont just give a country funding and say “now you’re teir one.”

      • March 24th 2012 @ 3:58pm
        timbsy said | March 24th 2012 @ 3:58pm | ! Report

        Agree with you 100 percent kingplaymaker. The only way countries such as Russia, Georgia and Romania will develop is having a side in top tier competitions week in and week out where their top players can develop, the local population have the opportunity to experience and view competitive rugby regularly and the local union has an opportunity to cash in on commerical opportunities which would come from this such as sponsorship and tv deals. They should take it a step further and also allow these countries to compete in the A nations tournamet of the six nations countries….the FIRA Nations Cup just isnt competitive enough for these countries to develop considering they are now competing in the RWC.

    • March 22nd 2012 @ 6:46am
      Uncle Eric said | March 22nd 2012 @ 6:46am | ! Report

      Correct KPM. It is pleasing to see the rise of Rugby in second and third tier countries, despite the non-efforts of the IRB. And while we are at it we could argue that the ARU suffers from the same closeted views. Despite the lack of playing depth in Australia and the overwhelming need for a second tier competition below S15, the ARU seemingly continues to do little to promote the game at the school and junior level outside of the traditionally strong states and presumably the ones with most influence on it.

      There is lots of talk about improving the game at the elite level by tinkering with this rule and with that, but in my view the product is fine (just look at the closeness of most S15 games so far this season), the major problem is the way the game is marketed. Years ago an aussie rules loving friend of mine and I went to watch the Force in a pre-season game. He was so taken with it that he became a member and has remained so.

    • March 22nd 2012 @ 6:54am
      kingplaymaker said | March 22nd 2012 @ 6:54am | ! Report

      Uncle Eric it’s very odd that the IRB think the only means of expanding the game is through international rugby. Other codes such as the Super league in England, expand the game through new clubs in Expansions areas. Why can’t the IRB do the same? And in terms of expanding a game within an existing rugby country, why doesn’t the IRB help or at least support unions in doing this? Why does it leave it to them?

      I would argue that if the IRB FUNDED Super teams in L.A. Tokyo, Vancouver and Moscow, and Raboprodirect teams in Tibilisi and Bucharest, then within a decade the state of the game in these countries would be transformed. The ‘Top down’ theory of the game Mr Mexted suggests is a powerful one and something ignored by the IRB.

      • March 22nd 2012 @ 7:00am
        Ben S said | March 22nd 2012 @ 7:00am | ! Report

        Erm… the RFL governs sport in a single country. The IRB doesn’t… It’s not really an appropriate comparison.

      • March 22nd 2012 @ 5:28pm
        AndyS said | March 22nd 2012 @ 5:28pm | ! Report

        Sorry KPM, but I’d argue that is not their job…the I in IRB stands for “international”. The IRB is about the competition between countries, which is why they are responsible for all the various World Cups, the PNC, the Olympics, Nations cup, etc. They are not and should not be about how rugby is run within a country. That is for the locals to figure out. The IRB just has to find something appropriate for the resulting national side to do.

    • March 22nd 2012 @ 9:16am
      Manoa said | March 22nd 2012 @ 9:16am | ! Report

      I am amazed at the opportunities available to play rugby anywhere. I have a workmate who’s younger brother has just signed a professional deal to play in Malaysia, granted it’s not a huge amount of money but still what an experience.

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    • Columnist

      March 22nd 2012 @ 9:45am
      Spiro Zavos said | March 22nd 2012 @ 9:45am | ! Report

      Murray, this is a great insight into the world wide stretch of rugby and its tremendous growth since the first Rugby World Cup tournament in 1987. This tournament created an environment for rugby to eventually become professional in its traditional countries.

      The decision to make SevensRugby an Olympic sport has spread the reach of the game to countries that could never produce a champion 15-man side but could, and have (Kenya is a fine example) create a very exciting Sevens side.

      The IRB has taken a lot of flak from readers of The Roar over the years. But since the Frenchman Bernard Lapasset has become the chairman of the IRB there has been a terrific improvement in the world view of this organisation. Lapasset was the driving force behind the Olympic Games bid. He spends a lot of time, like Murray, in Asia, which is a fast-growing area for rugby.

      Just a personal point, I admire Murray’s enthusiasm for taking rugby to countries where the game does not, yet, have a great presence. This is in the true tradition of the rugby ethic. There has always been a missionary element in the DNA of rugby. I put it down to Dr Arnold, the famous headmaster at Rugby School, at a time when the boys were developing a ‘Rugby’ game on their Big Field.
      Arnold was a great traveller. he used to have his carriage ready the day school broke up to take him to the docks to catch a boat to France. This touring ethic, which Murray alluded to in his interesting article, is one of the great aspects of rugby, and an aspect of the game that seems to be flourishing, even in the era of professional rugby.

    • March 22nd 2012 @ 10:00am
      Ally said | March 22nd 2012 @ 10:00am | ! Report

      7’s is really taking off i wish the IRB would also provide the same focus/funding to 10’s as well. it’s a great game which is a bit more accommodating for forwards.

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