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Rugby's pagans are a dying breed

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Roar Pro
5th July, 2019
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With over 100 unions affiliated to World Rugby, and a further 17 holding associate membership, it is perhaps easier to count up the number of countries which don’t play rugby these days.

The list becomes incredibly small if we confine it to nations with no active rugby programme at all. In the whole of Asia that apparently leaves us with North Korea, Yemen and Turkmenistan – and there is no clear data on the latter.

Iraq and Palestine both have national teams, though they have not been active for over a decade. Vietnam, Myanmar, Bhutan, Tajikstan, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Timor L’Este all have domestic rugby but no national teams.

In Africa there is Somalia, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea and the Sao Tome and Principe Islands. Cameroon and Mauritania are currently suspended from Rugby Africa, while the Egyptian federation remains unrecognised by the regional association. Angola, Gambia, Liberia, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti and Guinéa Bissau have domestic rugby.

Mozambique defeated Swaziland’s Mbabane Cheetahs 48-7 in May, having previously defeated the same opponent 69-0 last year. Meanwhile, Congo’s Kinshasa Leopards took part in the Brussels Sevens last weekend, finishing 12th with one win and a draw from four games. They now go on to to the Paris World Games rugby sevens this weekend, with Burkina Faso also involved.

In Europe, we are down to the Faroe Islands and Vatican City, apparently, and I wouldn’t hold my breath for the latter! Iceland has had an active programme for over a decade, albeit involving fewer than 100 players. It has fielded a national team in European sevens events.

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It would be interesting if rugby were played in Greenland, if only to see whether they aligned with Europe or the Americas. Its 57,000 population is 88 per cent Inuit, and they are pushing for independence from Denmark (apparently targeting 2021).

The giant island hosted the 2018 Pan American Handball Championships in the capital Nuuk. Greenland is very much a part of the Americas, being geographically closer (26km) than most of the Caribbean islands, and featuring identical flora and fauna to Canada.

In the Caribbean itself, the islands of Grenada, Dominica, Montserrat and Sint Maarten do not play rugby at an organised level. Add to this the tiny nation of Suriname, which lies on the South American continent but is part of the Rugby Americas North set-up for cultural reasons.

Haiti and Cuba have both played the Dominican Republic at Sevens on more than once occasion. Interestingly, the revolutionary hero Che Guevara – a keen rugby player in his native Argentina – is credited with introducing the game to the latter island.

That leaves South America as the only regional body to have affiliated all nations within its environs. Bolivia became the 16th member of the Federation last year. It has 14 clubs and 39 teams spread around six cities, with a total of 676 registered players (35 per cent age-grade, 21 per cent female).

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Oceania is down to the Marshall Islands and Pitcairn. The former has been largely evacuated due to nuclear weapons testing, while the latter has a population of 50. Kiribati has a rugby federation, though no record of international competition.

The US island territory of Guam, actively involved in Asia, is known to have engaged its Micronesian neighbours at both XVs and Sevens levels, including the Northern Marianas, Saipan, Pohnpei and Palau.

The Armenian Olympic Committee now lists a national rugby federation. Armenia had a national team in the previous decade, in fact, and won their first ten games. But the players were mostly diaspora, apparently, and even played some of their home games in France. Their last recorded match was a narrow loss to Serbia in 2011.

Neighbours Azerbaijan were active during a similar period, though their team was mostly home-grown and managed only one win from 22 encounters – that being against Bosnia in 2005. Their last recorded hit-out was a 31-3 defeat to Turkey in Bratislava six years ago.

The Kosovo Rugby Federation finally received its recognition from the Ministry of Sport, Culture and Youth this week. They held their first men’s championships this year with the winning team coming from Peja.

There is also a mini-tournament in Skopje this weekend featuring a combined men’s XV from Kosovo’s Bears RFC and North Macedonia’s Wild Boars against the Rebels from Thessaloniki, Greece.

Rugby is alive and well in Northern Cyprus, with regular beach tournaments, tens tournaments and even XVs. The Pumas club has been active since 2003 and actually won the Turkish league 11 years ago but had to withdraw in 2012 due to the economic downturn and excessive travel costs.

Despite its modest population of 350,000, Northern Cyprus has over a dozen universities. This includes campuses for mainstream Turkish Universities, such as the Middle Eastern Technical University, which has dominated Turkish rugby for the past decade.

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The students are mostly from Turkey and Africa, and the bulk of the players from Zimbabwe and Nigeria. They are apparently able to field up to five sides for tournaments.

The south of Cyprus has a population of around 850,000. They have eight teams playing regularly – four UK army/RAF-based sides and four Cyprian teams. Cyprus holds the world record of 24 consecutive Test wins.