Pakistan on the rugby horizon

Feb 10 2013


PRU is working on professionalising the sport in Pakistan. -Dawn photo

“If you can't take a punch, you should play table tennis.” Pierre Berbizier

It seems that former French captain Pierre Berbizier’s 1995 jibe had a mighty affect on Pakistan not historically interested in playing the bruising sport.

The last two decades has seen the nation of warriors develop a formal base in rugby and establish a national body which has ensured recognition by the world governing body as well as exposure to competition from regional teams.

For the readers not too familiar it needs to be established that rugby is very much a mainstream sport and countries like England, France, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are world beaters. They all eye world cup glory and have set up some mouthwatering rivalries spread over decades.

Rugby is surely no child’s play. It is a sport of physical contact which can cause some serious injuries. On the other hand it provides tremendous entertainment and has a fan following all around the world with the players getting that rare adrenalin rush on the pitch, a rush that only highly competitive sports can bring.

The sport was brought to the Subcontinent by the British and Kolkata was where the first club was formed in 1872.

Legend has it that rugby was introduced to Karachi some 80 years ago well before Partition. A club was formed comprising mostly British Army men who wanted to make a league of sorts for their leisure time, they also encouraged the expatriate population that was settled in big numbers back in the day.

Locals didn’t have much interest in the sport and were focused more on hockey and cricket and even squash yet with time the interest has increased and thousands in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad and major cities of the Punjab are involved in the slugfest.

Following the example of rugby bodies from around the world, the Pakistan Rugby Union (PRU) was formed some 12 years ago. The body was initially helped by foreign embassies of the United Kingdom, France and other European nations.

Rugby enthusiasts were spurred on by them and with their backing formed club teams in Islamabad, which had abundance of space for playing the sport.

With interest in the game growing especially in the Punjab and the capital the stakeholders succeeded in forming a national team that featured in a three-nation tournament in Sri Lanka in 2003. Later in the year, the national body earned recognition from the global body, International Rugby Board, which gave associate membership to Pakistan.

The formation of a national body earned Pakistan recognition as an emerging rugby force; while the regional sport body, Asian Rugby Football Union, based in Hong Kong has helped PRU in establishing an identity in the continent.

Senior and junior rugby teams compete in regional competitions with an aim of improving the standard of play and gaining exposure against international competition.

At present the hub of the sport remains in Punjab and Islamabad. After the expatriate population gradually moved out of the country the interest could not be sustained in Karachi.

As in most sports played in the country, a lack of infrastructure proves to be a stumbling block. Progress at the top level in Asia is a mighty challenge in itself with the presence of top tier teams like Hong Kong, Indonesia, UAE, etc., who all have access to formal training and top-quality professionals from Europe, Australia and South Africa.

Another major impediment that remains is the security situation in the country which has forced the cancellation of training programmes due to the reluctance of foreign coaches who are not willing to travel to Pakistan.

At the same time there is a silver lining; the youth is where the focus is, PRU has already made inroads in more than 50 schools around the country. Colleges and universities are also getting a chance to play the game with the national body providing local development managers and coaches with an aim of imparting basic laws and knowledge to newcomers.

Teenagers start out by playing touch rugby (non-contact). The idea is to ease the children in and not expose them straightaway to what can be at times a brutal sport, which can cause severe injuries. In fact, all over the world age-grade rugby players are advised to start with touch rugby.

Another task at hand for PRU is establishment of a women’s wing, the governing body of the game has a requirement of a women’s team for all its member countries.

Some steps have been taken in this direction and talent scouting clinics for female players are being mulled upon.

With meagre resources at their disposal the PRU has to execute things mindfully, the body is nascent and sponsorship for the sport generally comes from businessmen, who are willing to spend purely based on their passion for the sport.

Professionalising rugby in the country is a long-term goal of PRU and for that to happen, an intelligent well thought out strategy with a sincere effort is needed.

So far the national body is comprised of rugby enthusiasts and players, most of them have devoted time and energy based out of their passion for the sport. They need to be encouraged and lauded for putting in a serious effort, however, it goes without saying that Pakistan Sports Board (PSB) and the Pakistan Olympic Association (POA) have to combine with PRU in order to establish a proper system for the sport in the country. It is pertinent to mention here that the PSB and POA are in the middle of a legal battle which is undoubtedly a major hiccup for bodies like the PRU.

Let us hope that better sense prevails and the two bodies spend their energy on working on developing sports like rugby rather than embroiling in a power struggle.

Most Pakistani sportsmen have the will, determination and spirit of making a mark at the highest level. The rugby players are no different so let us back them to the hilt.

Our hopes and aspirations for rugby in the country rely solely on the youth: Fawzi Khawaja

Pakistan Rugby Union’s president, Fawzi Khawaja, is passionate for the sport. From his childhood Fawzi played rugby and over the years his love for the game transcended boundaries, from Karachi to various leagues in the United Arab Emirates, the amiable Lahore-based administrator has seen rugby generate a mass appeal.

“In the 1960s and ’70s Karachi was an altogether different city; expatriates were settled in a large number and every month the crew of ships anchored at the sea port sought some recreation during their stay. For sailors and their male supporting staff rugby was a real source of entertainment and with the help of the expatriate population they used to converge for games at the Clifton beach right behind Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s mausoleum,” the president informs.

Ever since the formation of the national rugby body, Fawzi has played a leading role in establishing the sport in the country. At present some 2,000 players are actively playing rugby.

“Lahore and Islamabad are the two cities which dominate the rugby scene in the country — the grounds are readily available there and the interest is somehow more than Karachi. Out of the active players nearly half are students of various age groups. They are the future and the national body is very keen on harnessing their talent.

“The youth will take the sport forward and make Pakistan compete at the highest level,” states Fawzi, while pinning his hopes on the growing interest in the game encouraged by the advent of local and international sport channels.

Meanwhile, there are many departmental and regional teams that take part in tournaments held across the nation, each province has an association that works with the national body. Fawzi reveals that the national team is made out of the players featuring in departmental and regional outfits.

“Teams like Army, Police, Wapda and HEC are the ones that actively participate in tournaments for both 15s and 7s rugby. The national players are part of these outfits while it is also heartening to note that in the past, professional doctors and businessmen have also represented Pakistan at the international level.

“Most of these players were extremely keen on placing the nation on the rugby map and it was due to their effort that we made it to division three at the Asian level and defeated leading teams of the region some five years ago,” he says.

Unfortunately the progress made at that time has not been followed through. The standard has declined somewhat and the national team was relegated to Asian division four after a string of poor performances last year. One of the reasons for the dwindling standards is the security situation in the country which hampers the efforts of the body of hiring top notch coaches for local players.

“The International Rugby Union is keen on supporting Pakistan and has arranged foreign coaches. However, they are not willing to give them security assurances of any kind. Hence none of the leading coaches is available for a stint here. It becomes extremely difficult to measure up to the rapidly progressing international scene in such a scenario which in turn results in poor performance,” Fawzi observes.

Another impediment in the growth of the sport is the lack of funding, a predicament that has affected every sport sans cricket in the country. The national rugby body relies on funding from the international body and Pakistan Sports Board. The grant from PSB is meagre and even that is broken down into various installments given out on a quarterly basis.

Fawzi though remains defiant. He feels that the national body is going to stay involved in the promotion of the sport and hopefully with more awareness a steady stream of income through sponsorship would become a reality.

“We have hope in the youth, the national body engages schools, colleges and universities from various parts of the country and generally the response to rugby is encouraging. Youngsters are willing to take up the sport and in the years ahead they would be the ones wearing the national colour. We have to believe in them and provide them every facility that will make their task easy,” he says.

The supremo dreams of making rugby a mainstream sport and while his tenure might not last more than a year, he is keen on carrying on even as a volunteer.

The task is an enormous one and Fawzi, his team and their successors would have to maintain the momentum and continue the surge if Pakistan is to make a name for itself in the sport.

For the years ahead sustainable plans need to be worked on, the first target should be to catapult to the top division in Asia.

However, that in itself is a mighty challenge considering the advancement of the standard of play of leading Asian countries.

Yet one must laud PRU’s efforts. They have a vision and are working hard under trying circumstances. Whether they would reap full reward of their work only time would ascertain for now though their concentration is solely on ‘Mission Rugby’.

The writer is a sports anchor/reporter at DawnNews.