“Media also started to pick up on the curious phenomenon of rugby players leaving the field without drama once a yellow or red card is shown by the referee.“
DUBAI — If God is Brazilian, as the proverb goes in the South American country of Brazil, he seems to take kindly to the game played in Heaven. Rugby is alive and well in Brazil, and becoming more so as the weeks and months pass.
As evidence, consider Brazil’s results at the Emirates Cup of Nations. In fact, Brazil’s mere presence in Dubai says something. The Brazilians are playing their first international fifteens test match outside South America, and that is a big step for a rugby side still yet to qualify for a World Cup.
“It is fantastic to be here, to play outside of South America. We didn’t make a great game against Kenya but played well against UAE, and we hope to become better by the end of the tournament.” said wing Daniel Gregg.
“We didn’t know many things about the other teams before coming.” added Brazil lock Vitor Medeiros, the only player coming from the North, representing Potiguar Rugby Club in Natal. “Playing Kenya was a really new experience, they are really fast and have different tactics and game strategies. Most teams in South America play with their forwards, they have good lineouts, good scrums, big built, but the players from Kenya, they run like the wind.”
Following their 66-3 dismantling of the host United Arab Emirates squad, which came on the heels of a tight 27-25 setback to Kenya, the Brazilians are showing that they are ready for some level of international competition.
And the people back home are starting to pay attention, too. Brazil’s play in the Emirates Cup of Nations is being shown live on Band Sports TV in Brazil and rugby has been the subject of a Cannes Film Festival-nominated commercial series, which talked of the sport’s first “Maria Chuteira,” the name given to Brazilian football groupies. In a soccer-mad country, media also started to pick up on the curious phenomenon of rugby players leaving the field without drama once a yellow or red card is shown by the referee.
While Brazil’s rugby success pales in comparison to its run of dominance in the nation’s first sports love, football/soccer, its emergence in rugby is happening just in time for rugby sevens’ arrival on the slate of Olympic events. That will happen in 2016, the same year Brazil will host the Olympic games. As a host nation, Brazil — currently ranked No. 33 in the IRB’s international rankings — will field a side in every event.
“I think it started to grow when we beat Argentina in the Sevens in the South American Tournament this February,” No. 8 Nicholas Smith said. “It started to pick up from there.”
“It is always difficult against Argentina, but it’s not impossible,” Gregg said. “And we entered the field with this sensation (that) we’re going to win.”
The team pulled off an unprecedented, 7-0 win over their arch-rivals in February on home ground in Bento Gonçalves, Southern Brazil, and went on to reach third place at the CONSUR Sevens to qualify for the Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, eight months later.
“Over two years, the scores were narrowing, becoming closer and closer with Argentina, and there was this championship in Brazil where our preparation was very good,” fly-half Lucas Duque said. “It was perfect. And then it happened.”
Duque, one of three brothers playing for Brazil, set up Gregg for the winning try against Argentina. After Dubai, Duque will head to France for tryouts with Top 14 and Division II teams. His soccer background shows in the acrobatic ball handling of the young star of the São José Rugby Club, a centre of rugby development with French influence.
Ironically, rugby shares its history in Brazil with soccer. Charles William Miller, a Brazilian of English-Scottish descent, went to study abroad in England in the late nineteenth century. In 1894, he brought to the São Paulo Athletic Club (SPAC), then known as the English Club, two balls: a rugby ball and a soccer ball. That marked the beginning of soccer and rugby in Brazil. Ever since, SPAC has a soccer field together with a rugby field.
Women’s Rugby has developed rapidly as well. They came in 10th in the 2009 Dubai Sevens World Cup but have been undefeated for more than ten years in Pan-America. The Women beat Argentina in rugby by a wide margin, as rugby in Argentina is not as popular. SPAC and Bandeirantes Clubs in São Paulo have strong women’s teams, but not all clubs have women’s sides and the girls are scattered.
Beach Rugby is also a great part of the appeal. In the recent South American Beach Rugby Tournament in Ecuador, Brazilian women came first, the men fourth. Anything that happens on the beach, seems to be successful in Brazil.
To change that, the Brazilian Rugby Confederation has put the national team under the control of an Argentine. Rodrigo Camardon. His principal push is to bring children to an early love of rugby.
“The culture of Brazil is not rugby, it is football, so it is difficult to build the culture, but they are trying hard. The main reason they start playing at 15, 16, 17 years old, but it is better to start this sport when you are a kid, at age 6 or 7. It is very difficult to build the core skills at a later age.” – said Camardon.
“Based on the rivalry we have in football between Argentina and Brazil, I thought, ‘it’s going to be very hard.’ But it was incredible. I love coaching them, and it was, for me, very easy. I don’t know if it is because of the weather, hot all year, but it wasn’t hard for me.”
The Confederation’s work has been crucial to building a rugby infrastructure, in addition to changing the sports culture of a large, diverse nation like Brazil. Traditionally an elitist sport, mostly practiced by those exposed to British or French culture, the Confederation now makes it its priority to spread the game to all levels of society.
“Building something from the beginning, from zero, that is virgin, with rugby values, with a professional corporate mindset, let’s bring it over to rugby, and now we have a professional plan for development until 2030 in place,” -Confederation Board member Roberto Germanos.
That is perhaps what makes Brazil, a nation of more than 200 million people, truly an untapped source of rugby potential. Rugby is being taught in some public schools now, part of a grassroots movement supported by the Confederation. The game’s social side might have the potential to bring people together in a country that has its social divides.
Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks side that won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, introduced to the Brazilians the notion that Brazil and its collectiveness could be used as a sport to promote cohesiveness and social structure.
“Pienaar came to Brazil, he talked to us and he saw that this was a real possibility to use rugby as a social tool,” Germanos said.
It is a very successful program now, with many children and an educational side as well – encouraging them to go to school. In order to participate, they have to show their grades. It is not only teaching rugby as a new sport, but also that rugby has its values and the importance of those values, such as respect.
“When Rio was announced, it was the feeling of everything coming together,” Germanos said. “We were kicked forward. We were trying to move and someone just kicked the ball forward to the field for us. It was wonderful.”
The next big step for Brazilian rugby? Qualifying for the World Cup.
“We want to see our next generation of Brazilians in the World Cup, and I think this is going to happen, we truly believe in that,” Germanos said. “I don’t think it is too long before Brazil plays in the World Cup, it is maybe one or two generations away.”