Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The rugby rumble

The Rugby World Cup in England has reached the final, a timely reminder that the sport has its own teams, players and supporters right here in Egypt. Heidi Elhakeem reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Rugby is often described as a game played by “gentlemen”. There is no individualism. It is a united team game built on trust and respect. Teammates treat each other as family. Referees and opponents are highly respected on the field.

Players believe rugby teaches lessons on the field that could be applicable as life lessons off the field: self-control, perseverance and unity.

That rugby spirit is found in Egypt where the sport was first introduced by the British and was “played exclusively” by expats, says Hassan Khaled, vice chairman of the Egyptian Rugby Football Union (ERFU). ERFU was “successful in gaining recognition by and acceptance of the Confederation Africaine de Rugby (CAR)”. After the establishment of the Alex club “more Egyptians started playing the sport,” Khaled said.

There are currently five active teams in Alexandria, more so than in Cairo: Alexandria Rugby Football Club, established by the Pharaoh Gold Mine Company, Eagles Rugby Football Club, set up by Aviation Club in Alexandria, Warriors Rugby Football Club in Smouha Club, Titans Rugby Football Club of the Arab Academy for Science and Technology (AAST) in Alexandria, and Raptors Rugby Football Club, belonging to the Faculty of Engineering in Alexandria University. There is also the Alexandria women’s rugby team.

In Cairo, there is the Cairo Rugby Football Club, established in Maadi, AUC Wolves, at the American University in Cairo, GUC Panthers, of the German University Cairo, and BUE Bulldogs, belonging to the British University in Cairo.

Cairo Rugby Football Club was the first rugby team in Egypt, formed in 1980 by British expatriates. The Alexandria Rugby Football Club was established in 2003, while Alex Rugby set up the first female rugby team that same year.  The Eagles Rugby Club in Alexandria has been around for over three years.

Ahmad Al-Nakah, on the AUC team, has been playing rugby for eight years. “Rugby teaches you how to support your teammates, like a family, how to cope with different situations under pressure, and persistence.”

Al-Nakah chose rugby out of curiosity “since it was a new sport” to him. He was lucky to play with Scottish and Norwegian teams. “It was a special experience,” he recalls. “They were experienced and taught me a lot and they considered me family.”

Alexandria Rugby coach Mohamed Mustafa, 34, known as “Moody” to his team, has been coaching the team for four years. Previously the captain of Egypt’s national team, Moody believes rugby can “shape someone’s personality off the field”.

Rugby to Mohamed Al-Soussi, coach of the Eagles Rugby Club in Alexandria, is a game that helps eliminate “negative energy”.

Salah Ibrahim, a Faculty of Engineering Alexandria University student, joined Raptors Rugby Club when it first started in his university. Ibrahim described rugby as a “brotherhood”, however, he called the physical pain that players can go through as its downside. “Some players walk out with a fractured rib or a fractured back.”

Moody started playing rugby in 1999 “unintentionally”. He himself mistook it for American football at the beginning. “Rugby is completely different,” he says. “It is a continuous game for about 80 minutes,” unlike American football.

Many Egyptians believe rugby and American football are one but there are big differences. In American football, players have to wear protection consisting of a helmet, a mouthpiece and shoulder and thigh pads, unlike rugby where there is no protection gear.

The rugby ball is similar to the American football — diamond-shaped, 27cm long, but with a flatter end. It lends itself to easier passing, and weighs between 410-460 ounces. In rugby, the ball can only be passed by hand sideways or backwards or kicked forward. In American football, the ball is normally passed only forward.

There are two kinds of rugby: Rugby Union (Premiership) and Rugby League (Super League). These are not leagues but different ways of playing the game. They both have the same idea. A player runs with the ball until he or she reaches a touchdown in the opposition’s in-goal area to score a goal, known as a ‘try’.

Rugby Union is considered more popular, and has been around for longer. Rugby Union is also the sport of choice in Egypt.

To the uninitiated, the opposite team stops the ball carriers by pulling them down, or taking them to the ground, known as ‘the tackle’. The tackle is achieved when the ball carrier is held by one or more opponents and put on the ground or on top of another player who is already on the ground.

The tackle makes the main difference between the two sports. In Rugby Union, as soon as the tackle has been made, the ball carrier must release the ball immediately or pass it to a teammate. Anyone on either team can pick up the ball and run with it.

In Rugby League, after the ball carrier has been tackled the opponent must release the ball carrier. The tackler’s team must stay 10 metres away from the ball carrier and allow the ball carrier to kick the ball back to a teammate. Then they run towards the ball again.

There are backs and forwards on each team. And usually there are those on the bench as interchanges. In Rugby Union, the team consists of 15 members; in Rugby League there are 13.

Eagles Club plays Rugby Union 15’s for men, and sevens for women, meaning 15 players on the men’s team and seven on the women’s team. Cairo Rugby Women and Alexandria Women’s Rugby play sevens but for shorter times than the men. Men play for 40 minutes and women 20 minutes. Cairo Rugby has about an equal number of foreigners and Egyptians.

The difficulties that face a club like the Eagles Rugby Club is “money or finding sponsors” and the team doesn’t get any “support from the government,” Al-Soussi said.

Mustafa Bassiouni, 26, has been playing for Cairo Rugby for five years. He always wanted to play rugby as it was considered a “niche” sport in Egypt but he thinks there aren’t enough rugby fields in Cairo and Alexandria. “It is almost impossible to find a rugby ball in Egypt.” Bassiouni adds, “Finding people who are experienced enough to coach” is not easy.

The only team that gets the chance to compete internationally is AUC. AUC competes annually at the Dubai Sevens and will be competing again this December, says player and AUC student Farah Abdel-Kader.

Rugby is a rough sport; players get tackled to the ground wearing no protection. As such, society sets misconceptions that “girls aren’t wired to play rough games”, says Sohayl Al-Nayal, team captain of the Alexandria Women’s Rugby team, the first women’s team in Egypt. Yet, despite the label, rugby is still popular among women. “I can run and tackle like all the men,” Al-Nayal insists. Abdel-Kader refers to the girls on her team as “beasts”.

“More women, especially Egyptian women should get into rugby,” said Cairo Rugby Women’s captain Gemma Louise Pagan, from England. Pagan doesn’t see rugby as a strange sport for women. “They are just women who want to play sports.”

Aya Abdel-Fattah, 23, who played for three years with the AUC rugby team, set up and coaches the GUC Panthers girls team. Abdel-Fattah believes that the problem women face is usually psychological more than psychical as most of them “don’t believe in their own strength and abilities, like when they are tackling someone bigger than them in size.”

In 2010, Abdel-Fattah created a Facebook page, “Tackling Rugby in Egypt”, an informative source for rugby enthusiasts. It is beneficial for those looking to join a team, giving them information about teams who are scouting or recruiting new members.

Rugby is engaging to men, women and juniors. “But it’s not getting enough attention despite the spirit it creates,” Al-Soussi said. To Abdel-Fattah, rugby is about the life lessons she learned on the field that she is able to “carry out” in her life, such as “discipline”, “commitment”, and “teamwork”.

Rugby isn’t anywhere as popular in Egypt compared to other team sports. The government hardly pays any attention to it. A signature from the Ministry of Youth and Sports for the sport’s official recognition might change the future of rugby in Egypt. Players are hoping for a professional union to be formed but that is a long shot at best.

Al-Nakah says rugby “needs an official union like other sports” and “to be part of the budget that Egypt allocates for all sports.” “We need to initiate an official union,” Al-Soussi says.

A year ago, the ERFU started a programme with the CAR and the World Rugby Union called ‘Get into Rugby’ (GIR) to teach rugby in schools to boys and girls aged 9-10 years. Khaled says that playing rugby at a young age could implant in young children with righteous “ethics and morals”.

Because rugby is not that popular in Egypt, its fan bas in consequence is not very big, but it is solid. Hania Suleiman, 17, thinks rugby “is an engaging sport, and because it is not popular here it gives it more appeal”.

Rana Syam, 22, who just started playing three months ago, sees that the sport has much “dynamic”.

In Egypt, rugby viewers must pay for cable subscription which makes it harder to follow the sport. Some, though, are watching the World Cup whose final between Australia and the defending champions All Blacks of New Zealand will be played at Twickenham Stadium in London on 31 October.

Rugby sevens, a form of Rugby Union consisting of seven players instead of the usual 15, will make its first appearance since 1924 in the 2016 Olympics. Egypt, however, won’t be competing in Rio. For Egypt to compete in the Olympics or World Cup, the game has to be under an official union and must be recognised as an official sport. Neither has happened.

Rugby may look like a rough sport, where bulky players slam into each other, pulling each other to the ground, jumping on top of one another. However, it has a gentler side. The moment the referee blew the whistle in a recent friendly, players from Cairo Rugby Football and Alexandria Rugby, with their rough-looking faces — men and women — relaxed and shook hands. Then they all went out for drinks. Cairo Rugby invited Alexandria out, even though Cairo lost the game.

And that’s what rugby is all about.

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