Raving about rugby

December 01, 2013


The sport of rugby has two versions, Rugby Union and Rugby League; both are widely practiced internationally. They share the same general rules but differ in certain specific rules. Though both are played internationally but Rugby Union is more popular. Rugby Union is generally played with 15 members in a side. But a seven-a-side version called Rugby 7s is also widely played.

The International Rugby Board (IRB) has 100 full members and 18 associate members. It is the official national sport of New Zealand, Fiji, Georgia, Samoa, Tonga and Wales. The Rugby World Cup has been taking place every four years since 1987.

The sport of Rugby Union has thrived ever since it became officially professional in 1995 ending the bar on players getting payment. It is the second most popular sport after soccer in England, the country of its origin; and ahead of cricket.

Men’s rugby featured in four of the first seven Olympics but was excluded since 1924. After a lot of lobbying and canvassing, Rugby Union is all set to rejoin the Olympics fraternity at the next edition in 2016.

Though a full contact sport which appears quite physical, rugby is governed by very strict rules. The referee’s decision can’t even be argued by the players. If someone tries to initiate such a discussion with the whistle man not only that player but the team also suffers. For instance, the offending side might have to cede an area of 10 metres in the field to the opponents just for objecting over the decision.

Of all the popular team sports played in the four home nations of the United Kingdom, rugby is one discipline where Scotland, Ireland (the combined team of Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland) or Wales face big brother England with realistic hopes of victory; definitely not the case with soccer, cricket, hockey, etc.

Wales, with a population of just three million (the smallest among rugby’s four home nations) has wonderful achievements to its credit. They have done the ‘grand slam’ in the annual Six Nations Championships competed by England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy and its predecessor the Five Nations Championships (before Italy joined in 2000) 11 times. Only England with 12 have done more. A Grand Slam occurs when one team beats all of the others during one year's competition.

They have earned the triple crown — victory over all the other three home nations within the above annual six nations tournament — 20 times which is second to England’s 23 successes while Ireland and Scotland have only 10 each to their credit. Wales is also the only home nation other than England to reach the podium at the Rugby Union’s World Cup (third in 1987). In the last edition, 2011, Wales finished fourth.

Little wonder, Rugby is the most popular sport in Wales, even ahead of soccer. It is also their national sport — one of only six nations in the world.

Not only the national team but the domestic league is also followed with passion.

Pakistan Rugby presently is lucky enough to have a Welshman as its head coach. Roger Coombs arrived in Pakistan this April as technical director and head coach of the national team. His contract runs until the end of May, 2014.

Coombs played for the Pontypool Club in the Welsh premiership for a couple of seasons. But his real passion has always been coaching. He carried his day job as head of physical education in the prison services along with coaching at the top level.

He trained London Irish, a top division club of England, for four years until 1996. Many of his wards there managed to gain selection for the Irish national team. Once retired from the prison service at the age of 55 in 2003, Coombs became a globe trotter. His coaching assignments have made him travel to all parts of the world, to clubs in Italy, the USA and Nigeria, sports academy in South Africa and the national team of Bahamas.

Before coming to Pakistan, Coombs was working with a Nigerian club.

“I was in Dubai with the Nigerian side. I met a Pakistani team from Islamabad there and was impressed with their enthusiasm. My contract with the Nigerian club was about to expire so I said jokingly to some members of the Pakistani team, ‘Do you need a coach?’ Next I received an email from the Pakistan Rugby Union asking for my CV.

“I spoke to other foreign coaches who had worked in Pakistan before and they gave me a positive response,” says Coombs.

Based in Lahore now, Coombs talks about the various aspects of Pakistan rugby.

“I am impressed by the Pakistani players’ enthusiasm to play and learn. But very few have been fortunate enough to have had proper coaching. Then the player base is very small for a country of 180 million — only about 3,000 play the game regularly. Though that’s not bad considering the Pakistan Rugby Union (PRU) was formed only about 10 years back.”

The coach believes that for enhancing the base, the start has to be made with the kids.

“Rugby should be introduced in schools. I am happy that the federation is working in this direction. I have been visiting schools in most of the cities that I have been to. We have started training kids from age 10 upwards in the branches of Beaconhouse and City School, the biggest chains of private schools in this country.

I am also trying to start schools’ league, at least in a couple of cities. For this, four to five schools in Lahore and three in Faisalabad are in the mix. Going upwards, formation of under-8 sides in Lahore and Islamabad is also one of my aims,” he shares.

About the national team, there are some suggestions.

“The Pakistani players need to improve their physical fitness and more importantly should get more international exposure. There is no substitute for competition. As presently the PRU is financially not quite rich so at least matches with the neighbouring countries like Iran, Central Asian nations, etc., could be arranged. It is very heartening to know that a six-nations tournament is to be staged in Lahore in March.”

Coming to the domestic scene, Coombs observes that only a couple of areas are engaged in meaningful rugby activities.

“The two big centres of rugby in Pakistan are Lahore and Islamabad. The standard of the game at these two places is far ahead of the rest of the country. That said there is enthusiasm for rugby in other parts as well. My scouting-cum-coaching trips have taken me not only to big metropolis such as Faisalabad and Multan but also to small towns like Lodhran and Fort Abbas in Southern Punjab. One sees good potential in these parts. I picked two Faisalabad boys for the national under-19 side.”

Coombs is delighted with the Pakistan’s success at the U-19 Asian Rugby Championship Division’s third competition held last October in Lahore.

“Although only three teams figured in the tourney it was important for Pakistan on two counts. The victory meant Pakistan has obtained promotion to the Division Second of the U-19 Asian Rugby Championship. Then the win over the traditional rivals India in the final has done a world of good for the confidence of our boys. I know Pakistan’s win over India in any sport is always special for the general public as well; more so as the event was well covered by both the electronic and print media.

“I have already observed more kids are now interested in taking rugby after this victory over the arch rivals. At the same time, I must tell you that the boys had been working very hard for this event for last two months. They listened and learnt, and put it all into practice. The lads were very fit and I could also see the confidence in them when entering the field to take on the Indians.

“Quite a few of this U-19 squad should progress to the national senior team in the near future. The under-19 side also included three Pakistani origin players from the UK. We intend to bring more quality players from there for the national teams. I was astonished that most of the rugby players in the UK having Pakistani roots didn’t even know about the existence of a national team in the country of their origin,” he says.

It is obvious that the game doesn’t just need good players, good coaches are also required.

“There are very few rugby coaches in Pakistan. I have plans to conduct coaching courses for senior players as well as for the games teachers in the educational institutions. Beaconhouse and City schools have already arranged sessions for 20 teachers each in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad,” he informs.

Always thinking of means to get more potential talent, Coombs has some novel ideas. “I find kabaddi, a popular sport in Pakistan’s rural areas, shares some similarities with my game. Like rugby, kabaddi also involves sprinting and grabbing the opponent as well as dodging/running away from the opponent. Hence, I intend picking kabaddi players for rugby,” he says.

During his tenure in this country, Coombs is determined to spread the message of the game as far as possible. “I have also made efforts to introduce rugby among the girls. In fact, it is included in my contract. I gave preliminary lessons to girls not only in places like Lahore but even to the female students of Bahawalpur’s Islamia University. They were not only receptive but found the sport very enjoyable. If Islamic countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, considered more conservative than Pakistan, and who play with the hijab, can have very good women sides then why not Pakistan?” he asks.

One question unfortunately asked these days of almost every foreigner, especially one with a Western background visiting this country: security concerns about coming to Pakistan.

“Yes, my three daughters didn’t want me to go. Some friends even remarked, ‘Are you mad?’ I myself was a bit apprehensive but I have had a very good time here. Lahore has a dynamic culture and people are also hospitable. One aspect, I really admire is the greenery: parks, flowers and trees. I have visited the walled city and also witnessed the flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah border.

“Islamabad is also beautiful; again a green city.

“Interestingly, one of my daughters who opposed my coming to Pakistan would soon be visiting me here,” he laughs.

About any difficulty that he faced in Pakistan, Coombs says, “Well, a little bit with the language. Not all people here understand English especially those from the provincial towns. The problem also occurs while coaching but there are always some players who act as interpreters so its not that big an issue. However, I see most of the younger people such as the national U-19 players are well conversant with the English language.

The affable Welshman earnestly desires to see Pakistan rugby climb up the ladder but at the same time warns the path is not an easy one. Under Roger Coombs’ tutelage, the Pakistan U/19 team gained promotion to the second division of the Asian Competition and he is confident that the Pakistan’s senior side is also fully capable of making the next grade. “The senior side, currently languishes in the fourth tier of the Asian Rugby. They are capable of getting promotion to the third division if everyone, that is, players, coaches and the PRU work in unison and in the right direction. The PRU should also try to bring in sponsorship.

All these plans such as promoting rugby in schools, universities and across the country, preparing coaches, providing international exposure to the national teams, etc., require finances. Things have started shining brightly as the corporate sector, too, is showing interest in rugby; the Asian U/19 division third competition was sponsored by a soft drink company here. The International Rugby Board is already providing financial assistance to the PRU. This assistance would hopefully increase considering the progress the sport of rugby is making in Pakistan in recent times.

Next May just before his contract expires, Pakistan will compete with China, Laos and Uzbekistan with only the winner progressing to the division three.

The writer is a sports journalist.