THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN WORLD RUGBY?
Growing the game in Afghanistan
Think of Afghanistan, and it’s a fairly safe bet that clichés like ‘war-torn’, ‘troubled’ and ‘failed state’ will spring first to mind. Many Western commentators like to use these phrases without it seeming to occur to them that many of the country’s troubles stem from the meddling of the world’s superpowers and their allies.
The next thing you would associate with Afghanistan might be the rise of their cricket team to the status of Associate Member of the ICC; such is their progress that they are confidently expected to follow Bangladesh to take their place as a full Test-playing cricket nation. What this reveals is that Afghans have a healthy appetite for team sports, especially those at which they can compete internationally. One of the positive results of ISAF involvement in Afghanistan is that the country’s football stadia are no longer places of public execution, as they were under the Taleban, but are once more being used for football – and not just soccer. Rugby Union football has taken hold in Afghanistan, and the early signs are very promising indeed.
The Afghanistan Rugby Federation (ARF) is the newest member of the world rugby family. Although the game was introduced from India during the Raj, it faltered when the British left and whilst some of the ISAF forces were playing the game, this was in camps and bases where Afghan civilians couldn’t watch. However, just over two years ago a group of Afghans visiting the UK were inspired by seeing professional rugby there, and felt that it was the right kind of game for their country.
Though the start was perhaps inauspicious, with three players attending the opening session, by the third session a full fifteen was showing up and growth in player numbers has continued steadily. Initially confined to the capital Kabul, the club game is slowly spreading across the country and founder club Kabul United has now played two fixtures, an opening draw against Khorasan RFC followed by a 49-5 win over Hindu Kush RFC.
On the international stage, the Afghan team has made a bright start with steady progress since their affiliation to the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) in November 2011. Coached by Mohammed Ashur, the team has an English technical adviser in Steve Brooking. A former Foreign Office worker now employed by the UN in Kabul, Brooking has also been involved in the development of cricket in Afghanistan, and is impressed by the locals’ appetite for rugby. “[Rugby] would suit the Afghan people because it is a tough, physical and athletic sport which depends on good teamwork, strength and passion,” says Brooking. Clearly he has helped get this message across with great success, as from that start point of three players, by the end of the year they were able to arrange an 8-team sevens tournament involving 120 players and from this to choose a national side. Initially playing against military teams in Kabul, by April the Afghans were ready to go overseas and headed to Dubai to take on the UAE Shaheen in a three match series played during the final stages of the Asian Sevens. Though they lost the series 2-1, as this video clip shows they displayed great handling and running skills and in particular a keen eye for a counter-attack off turnover ball. Some of our readers might have been lucky enough to see them in the flesh at the East London Sevens recently where again their performances did them credit.
With all the basics in place, there’s no reason why Afghan rugby can’t go from strength to strength. As ARF chairman Mohammad Mansoor says, “Currently we have most of the qualities required for this game. The only things that we are lacking are experience and a technical knowledge of the game.” It’s to be hoped that Afghanistan continues to get the right amount and level of international competition to allow them to thrive and develop as a rugby nation.
One of the key figures driving Afghan rugby development is the chief executive of ARF, Asad Ziar. He works tirelessly trying to raise the profile of rugby inside the country and also worldwide, and has taken a hand in efforts to increase participation. Taking the advice of coaches and administrators in major rugby nations, he has overseen the setting-up of a mini-rugby system in Afghanistan with the aim of attracting children into the game to create a pool of home-grown talent. This is the final piece of the jigsaw for a sustainable development in Afghan rugby. If they can succeed in attracting young players in significant numbers, then in 10 years’ time their international players can take the field with the skills and experience needed to compete.
The birth of rugby in Afghanistan is a welcome good news story in a land from where usually only the bad is reported. It’d be great to think that people like Mansoor, Ziar, Ashur and Brooking, with the courage and vision to make these things happen could see their efforts rewarded with international support and recognition – and also to see more coverage of stories like this in the western media to balance the usual diet of gloom.