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'I’m 31 and never expected this' - The Scot living the Belgian dream

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Liam Heagney)

Ryan Godsmark was deliriously overjoyed in the wake of last Sunday’s triumph by Belgium in the second leg of the 2023 Challenger Series tournament in Stellenbosch. The Scotsman’s adopted European team had arrived at the qualifying tournament as outsiders – yet they departed as week two champions and only narrowly fell short of overall champions Tonga on the aggregate points, 38 to 34, which qualified the Pacific Islanders for this month’s London Sevens and a shot at making next season’s World Series.

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With shape-throwing music pumping out through their boombox and players taking shiny happy people selfies with the trophy in the post-final aftermath in the Paul Roos Gimnasium at the Markotter Stadium, Godsmark took a fleeting break from all the delightful horseplay to put into perspective what had just unfolded.

The Belgians have been quietly working their way up through the backwater sevens circuit in recent times, progressing from Rugby Europe Sevens Trophy level to Championship level and they even secured a playoff match with Wales for a place at last September’s Rugby World Cup (they lost 24-12 in Bucharest). However, beating Tonga in a Challenger Series final was fairy tale stuff in Stellenbosch.

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“It’s just class,” enthused Godsmark to RugbyPass, his jersey off and a towel around his waist while preparing to get ready for the commute back to Cape Town for an unexpected night of celebration. “We came into the tournament not really expecting anything. We didn’t have a lot of preparation, but we have a good group of boys.

“Just to get even get into the semi-finals was a bit of a shock, but we beat Chile, got into the final and now we have won. All the boys didn’t expect it to happen but everything we worked towards in these two weeks, a small amount of time, has just been amazing.

“We are probably the most amateur of all the (12) teams here. We got together a weekend before we left, did a preparation weekend and that was it. This is as good as it gets really. We had the grand prix series to prove that even with the little funding that we got, we have a group of guys that have got something pretty special and we can do results.

“Other teams are looking at us to see what we are doing differently – and we are not doing anything different. It’s just a good group of guys and we know how to play for each other. It’s a real band of brothers and it worked.

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“We came in not serious. We wanted to do results, but we wanted to play for each other and this was really the gift that we gave ourselves – to spend these two weeks in South Africa because of all the hard work we did in the Trophy to get promoted to GPS. To then do a good result in GPS and obviously into this, it’s just crazy. We didn’t think it was going to happen. It is just amazing.”

The 31-year-old scrum-half is a happily accidental international player. A desire to travel and play rugby abroad originally took Godsmark across the Channel and a teaching job in Brussels was secured through contacts made when playing the game. He has since played Test and sevens internationally for Belgium and represented the Brussels Devils in the Super Cup – an exposure that makes all the sacrifice on his unpaid time worthwhile.

“I’m a PE teacher at the British School in Brussels and I’m going straight to work on Tuesday morning after we arrive off the flight from South Africa – so six o’clock I arrive, nine o’clock I will be teaching. I was travelling just to play rugby and it was through rugby that I got a job and I have been there for five years,” he explained.

“You have only one guy here (with the sevens) who plays rugby in France and is paid for it. It’s Jens Torfs, he plays in Nice. The rest of us? We have got two accountants, we have a strength conditioning coach, we have got salesmen, a student… I’m 31 and never expected this, not with Belgium anyway. I have still got another few years left in me, but this Challenger Series win will be a good memory. We will take as many photos as possible and we will really enjoy the celebrations.”

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Good ticker has taken the Belgians a long way compared to better-resourced unions such as Germany, the week one beaten finalists in Stellenbosch and the week two beaten semi-finalists. “If we could train full-time it would be amazing. Boys would leave their jobs and train full-time but we haven’t got the funding, we haven’t got the help that we need.

“The Belgian league is trying to do as much as it can but there is only so much it can do. It’s a case of organisation. You can see the difference between Germany and us. Although we got further than Germany, they are a really organised team – but it is one of our strengths to be amateur because we don’t expect too much. We know everything we do is for all of us.

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“We say to each other, ‘We are paid by each other’ and that is our little thing. We make sacrifices. For example, I took two weeks’ holidays, I’m not paid to be here. All these other guys are not paid to be here, they lose money, but it is all about the experience.”

Belgium were one of just three countries at the Challenger Series with representation in both the 12-team men’s and women’s competitions. Their women’s team also thrived, reaching the final on both weekends and coming within a try after the buzzer of defeating the Springboks in the second-leg decider.

It’s encouraging but with men’s coach Youssef Driss now finishing up with the team, the question now is what comes next. “The sevens is very much on the up,” continued Godsmark despite the music pumping through his team’s sound system as the celebrations continued in Stellenbosch.

“The feminine sevens have been great. I feel for them (losing the finals) because they put a lot of hard work in. Now they are on the stepping stone, they have got five contracted players on half-time contracts, they have got a bit of funding behind them and that is through sponsors.

“Sevens is really the performer for Belgium. XVs, we are not doing so good but the sevens programme is doing well. We don’t even play sevens in the country – but we have got a great coach and he is really well-organised and knows how to coach. It is unfortunate that this is his last tournament, so we don’t know what is going to happen.”

 

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