This time, Around The Regions comes from Senegal, where Ken Borland explores a growing passion for rugby and thousands of youngsters are taking up the game through the IRBâs Get into RugbyÂ programme.
The Senegal rugby side is not the first team â nor will it be the last â to have masked any technical deficiencies with sheer passion and commitment to the cause and the men from the west African republic are making waves on their continent.
Despite only playing regular international rugby since 2003, Senegal are already ranked in the top eight in Africa and are 43rd in the world. Although they are out of contention to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015 â Namibia last weekend secured the Africa 1 slot while Zimbabwe progress to the repechage â they have certainly shown that they can compete with the other African countries. In 2012, they lost to the big men of Namibia by just two points and by only three in 2008.
âOur scrums and lineouts are sometimes not that good but our men are very brave. We have a very aggressive defence which shows there is a lot of solidarity in the team. When we played against Namibia, they only just beat us,â said JÃ©rÃ´me GÃ©rard, secretary-general of the FÃ©dÃ©ration SÃ©nÃ©galaise de Rugby (FSR).
This rapid improvement has all come about because of the FSRâs focus on making rugby an attractive sport for the local population, rather than just a pursuit of immigrants. The introduction of the IRB Get Into rugby mass-participation programme has also made a big impact, boosting numbers of young players significantly.
Rugby arrived in Senegal during 1920s
âRugby has been played in Senegal by French colonialists since the 1920s and they created a union in 1960. But it was really only for the French. For 20 to 30 years rugby was a game only for the French colonists and the military,” explains GÃ©rard.
âBut Senegalese youngsters became curious and in the late 1990s there was real development thanks to a new policy aiming to develop rugby in the schools. The FSR increased the visibility of the game. Before that it was really unknown.
âRugby took off in 2005 when Senegal participated in their first Rugby World Cup qualifying and played six international games. The union identified players of Senegal origin in France and we tried to build a strong national team with expats to raise the profile of the game.â
All of this has led to the International Rugby Board increasing its generous development grant every year.
âThis recognition of our work is obviously very pleasing and it shows that we are growing rugby in Senegal. We also get technical and training support from the IRB and the ConfÃ©dÃ©ration Africaine de Rugby (CAR). Professionals come to Senegal and deliver short, intensive courses,â said GÃ©rard.
Standard of refereeing also improving
The health of the game is, of course, inextricably linked to the state of refereeing and GÃ©rard is particularly grateful for the IRBâs assistance in this regard.
âWe have had very good support to train our referees. Top referees have come from France since 2006-7 for one or two weeks every year. It has allowed us to build a training strategy for referees, which is very important for us. You canât play rugby without referees.â
Sylvain Mane is a product of these programmes, the 22-year-old being Senegalâs first international referee and currently undergoing high-level training in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
The FSR is also working to change the concentration of Rugby clubs in the capital, Dakar.
âIn the past two to three years, the union has aimed to extend our programmes to other regions and there are now seven or eight new entities, especially in the northern city of Saint-Louis. Not all of these clubs play Fifteens, some of them start with Sevens,â GÃ©rard says.
Game in the country is growing steadily
In 2005, the national Rugby championships comprised just five clubs, all of them made up of French immigrants. Eight years later, there were 12 clubs and all but one of them was fully Senegalese. This year, 18 clubs came to at least one of the national championships, whether it be menâs, womenâs, Fifteens or Sevens. And the FSR has achieved all this with just two paid employees.
âWe remain a humble organisation. Only two people extract a salary, all the rest are volunteers. We are amazed at the budgets some teams had for the Africa Cup 1B in Tunisia last month â it was almost what we have for an entire year! And yet weâve stayed in the top eight for the last three years,â GÃ©rard says.
Such economic constraints mean the FSR operate without much leeway, but GÃ©rard says qualifying for the 2019 World Cup is the target. This wonât happen without improved financial resources.
âIf we can generate more revenue, get more sponsors, then qualifying for the 2019 World Cup could be a real target. But itâs very difficult for us to get on TV. From time to time, they will send a reporter, a few times a year. Last year, when we hosted the Africa Cup Group B, we negotiated coverage for the first time and we hope to get a magazine show going on TV. But we need resources to do that and weâll try and get one or two sponsors as well,â GÃ©rard says.
The passion on the field is clearly being matched in the boardroom and, the rest of Africa be warned, Senegalese Rugby is on the rise.
Namibia win Africa Cup to book World Cup place
âGet Into Rugbyâ is part of the IRB strategy to grow the Game globally in partnership with its member regions and unions. The aim of the programme is to encourage players of all ages to try, play and stay in Rugby. Click here for more.
This feature forms part of our Around The Regions series exploring the game beyond its traditional heartlands. Do you have an interesting story to tell about Rugby around the world? Let us know by emailing email@example.com.
Senegal rugby ready to make a move