The tiny island of Nauru made its international debut with an 89-5 loss to hosts Papua New Guinea in the Oceania Championships last weekend, then followed up with a 61-7 reversal against the Solomon Islands midweek.
New Guinea won its second match against Niue, 29-10, to all but clinch the title. The final round of games will be played this weekend, with the Pukpuks up against the Solomons and Nauru facing Niue. Replacement Myer Temaki has been confirmed as the try-scorer for Nauru in their first game, while flanker Fulton Amran got across in the second.
It has also been a respectable return to the international arena for Niue, registering a 19-17 win over the Solomon Islands in the opening round. Even smaller than Nauri, with just 1600 inhabitants, Niue has been out of action for 11 years. This is a record for an internationally ranked team.
The record for the longest break for all teams, however, apparently belongs to another minute island, Wallis and Futuna. The nation of 13000 has been inactive at 15-a-side rugby since last competing in the Pacific Games four decades ago.
Interestingly, the RugbyPass web site ran a story earlier this year describing Wallis and Futuna as the nation which produces the most professional players per capita, with “hundreds” plying their trade across Europe, notably in France.
This is particularly remarkable as other Francophone nations in the region have not embraced the game to remotely the same degree. In Vanuatu and Tahiti, two of the larger islands, registered players number in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Another of the more populous islands, New Caledonia, remains a colony of France and its rugby is integrated into the French system, so a promising player from the islands would simply focus on making it in the French leagues.
The fact rugby wasn’t mainstream in France prior to WWII meant the game failed to take root during the early colonial period and did not become part of the national identity the way it did in Anglophone Pacific nations. Attempts to integrate second and third tier rugby in the region have proved disastrous historically, with huge scores being conceded against Fiji, Tonga and Samoa at the Pacific Games – including centuries in the days of three-point tries!
Meanwhile, across the other side of the world, another country on the comeback trail is the former Soviet republic of Armenia, which borders Georgia in the Caucasus region. Armenia competed in Europe with considerable success between 2004-2011, winning its first 10 games and making it into division 2B. But after one game in 2011, a narrow loss to Serbia, the team disappeared without a trace.
Apparently it had comprised largely of French diaspora, even playing a number of ‘home’ games in France. In 2014, Rugby Europe suspended Armenia due to inactivity. But now the team is on the comeback trail and actively seeking sponsorship. According to Wikipedia, there were three rugby clubs in Armenia as of 2012: Ararat, Artashat, and Ureni.
Neighbours Azerbaijan, in complete contrast, fielded a home-based team in Europe and managed to win just one of 22 games between 2005 and 2013. That was at home to Bosnia in just their second match ever. The sport was on the point of disappearing there entirely, according to a report last year on the Sputnik news site.
Elsewhere, Belize has just been added to Rugby America North, becoming only the fourth non-Caribbean member of the association after Canada, the US and Mexico. A nation of just 360,000, Belize is situated right at the base of Mexico and its southern neighbor, Guatemala, is part of the South American federation.
Formerly known as British Honduras, it has cultural ties with the UK, and English remains the official language (though a form of Creole is more commonly spoken). Its national team, nicknamed the Macaws after a local variety of parrot, has yet to play an official Test.
In Africa, Mozambique will be making its international sevens debut at the Southern African regional tournament in Lesotho this weekend. Gabon, Congo, Swaziland and Mozambique are also competing. The following weekend Egypt, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger will travel to the West African nation of Benin for the Northern regional sevens.
Egypt are the reigning Arab champions.
Finally, rugby has apparently cropped up in another part of the world I mentioned in an article two months ago about the sport’s “pagans” – Greenland: At least, a Facebook page has been set up for a club in the capital Nuuk.
There really can’t be many places left where the game isn’t played!