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FEATURE Is South America rugby's new promised land?

Is South America rugby's new promised land?
2 months ago

Can South America become the newest enclave of rugby, or is it a mirage lacking consistency, support, and a player base? For the past ten years, there were faint promises of a new era for the South Americans, as Brazil took down USA and pushed back the Maori All Blacks scrum like a knife cuts bolinho de queijo, while Uruguay earned a spectacular victory over Fiji in the 2019 World Cup, mustering all that Latino passion they are known for, and Chile’s qualification for the 2023 tournament shook up the game, winning hearts and minds and focusing attention once more on a continent ruled by the Pumas of Argentina.

We all know the intrinsic and deep love South American fans feel for their teams, filling up stadiums, injecting a crazy but beautiful passion in their chants, colour and banners. But rugby isn’t football, volleyball, or basketball, three of the most played sports in South America, and there are still questions whether it can be embraced with the same warmth.

Super Rugby Americas – formerly known as Super Liga Americana de Rugby – was created in 2023, but since covid struck four years ago, there has been no international tournament in South America. For every positive step, there seems to be a fresh obstacle, hindering South America’s potential and their credentials to host what could be an exhilarating men’s or women’s Rugby World cup in the years ahead.

‘We have a problem: we lose some of our best players’

Ignacio Chans, a long-time Uruguayan sports reporter, helps us understand where his country is heading. Los Teros backed up their stunning win over Fiji with impressive showings at the 2023 edition in France, while their U20s narrowly missed out on earning promotion to the U20 World Championship, losing the Trophy final to Spain having eliminated Scotland in the semis.

“The impact of the last two World Cup campaigns was positive, but there wasn’t that big growth in terms of new players coming in,” Chans tells RugbyPass. “The main challenge is to get more players to be able to compete at the highest level or, at least, be able to win against Georgia, Tonga, and other ‘Tier Two’ rivals.

Uruguay acquitted themselves admirably in a Rugby World Cup pool featuring New Zealand, France, Italy and Namibia (Photo by David Ramos – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

“We have a shared problem with countries like Portugal and Spain: we lose some of our best youth players when they go to college. The prospect of having a more stable career as a physician, lawyer, nurse, teacher, heavily impacts the future of some of our best under-18 players. The union invests massively in those youngsters to then get nothing in return when they choose to exit the club and international scene. But the union is now tracking those talents sooner and trying to find out if they want to become pro players or just play until they are 18, 19, or 20. By selecting and betting on those who seek something more in rugby, they might be able to have a chance to find future stars for the national team.”

Rugby is ranked as the third most played team sport in Uruguay, trailing only football, the main sport in the country, and basketball, which is within catching distance. The Uruguayan union linked its Penarol franchise to the football team bearing the same name, drawing 3-4,000 fans to watch their Super Rugby Americas fixtures.

Some believe the key to growth in South America is to harness the profile and prestige of the Pumas, decrying Argentina for staging few Test matches against its emerging brethren. Chans sees it differently.

“We have to understand for Argentina to play a country like Uruguay won’t be good for business – they wouldn’t get much in return. But they have been pillars of development in the region: not only playing an Argentina XV every time their neighbours need it, but also with training their staff or providing coaches, and opening their provincial youth tournaments to the other countries. And of course, giving political and technical support to make the birth of the Super Rugby Americas possible. The Test Matches are the main prize, and the Teros are going to have that when they play Argentina this summer.”

On the question of hosting a World Cup, Chans says: “The majority of the unions are still far from the ideal level. The development side of the game, especially in the women’s game, needs more time, ideas, and investment. The economical factor is the biggest issue for South America. For now, the conditions aren’t met to have a cross-border style World Cup. The second problem would be the fanbase and if it would move that many people to pack out stadiums.”

Brazil: a cautionary tale

Indeed, if Uruguay and Chile have scaled the heights of the World Cup, and even got some accolades in the HSBC SVNS, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Paraguay, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Venezuela and a few others still have a long road ahead.

Victor Ramalho, communications director for the Brazilian Rugby Union, explained why his nation isn’t enjoying the same success.

“The pandemic closed more than a few dozen clubs and social rugby programmes, which diminished the number of people playing rugby. But our problems started long before 2020,” says Ramalho, who formerly ran one of the biggest rugby news outlets in South America, Portal do Rugby.

Brazil’s As Yaras are strong competitors on the HSBC SVNS circuit (Photo by Mike Lee – KLC fotos for World Rugby)

“Rugby was first broadcasted in full in 2003, mainly with the World Cup in Australia. From that point on it continuously grew in size, with ESPN and Star+ covering all international competitions, prompting more people to watch it and, consequently, join a club or a group of players. The government invested in social programmes, and rugby found captured a lot of fans.

“Unfortunately, most clubs and directors didn’t know how to create the basic structures to keep those fans. Most of the new clubs never worried about creating youth-level categories, and that explains why we reached a plateau in our growth between 2014-2016. The expansion was in numbers, and not in quality, and that explains our ‘downfall’.”

Brazilian administrators focused chiefly on the elite game in the 2010s, and the underperformance at junior level is now an issue. Whilst the investment allowed the Tupis and Yaras national teams to flourish, and events such as the 2018 match against the Maori All Blacks brought 35,000 fans to the stadium in São Paulo, the grassroots game was not fed at the same pace. The pandemic exposed Brazil’s problems and hampered its growth. Now, it is harder to follow Uruguay and Chile.

“We are still focused on our high-performance programme and creating a viable career for our senior players in the Cobras franchise and Brazil setups,” Ramalho says. “But we took these last three years as a chance to reshape, support, and invest in our grassroots system.”

The current situation creates not only a competitive void, as some teams only play a few Tests a year, but also a commercial and pathway problem.

Underpinning all of these practical steps is the nation’s rugby culture itself. To think the South American countries share rugby origins and ideologies would be a mistake.

“Tier One fans have to understand the many differences, not only culturally but in how rugby developed,” Ramalho explains. “In Argentina, Chile and Uruguay rugby came from elite social sports clubs, which had tennis, squash and other sports, built and developed 100 years ago, which facilitated the creation of a youth system. Even to this day, clubs from Buenos Aires, Santiago or Montevideo are hugely embraced by their communities.

“In Brazil, those types of clubs were almost non-existent, mainly due to how cities were built in the 1960s and 70s. This might seem unimportant, but in reality it creates a major divide between countries. And you will find it as well in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and others. Rugby clubs in Brazil struggle to find proper fields, which impacts how they develop, especially youth programmes. The best way is always to partner with government or NGOs who want to build social projects. Rugby in Brazil is not a sport based on upper class clubs and you can see this in the national teams. It is very different from our neighbours”.

Ramalho also advocates for an annual international tournament to stoke interest and develop players.

“While Japan plays in the Pacific Nations Cup, and Argentina in the Rugby Championship, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil need a solid competition for the second half of the year. We need a continental tournament which can boost fan engagement. The current situation creates not only a competitive void, as some teams only play a few Tests a year, but also a commercial and pathway problem.”

Why the women’s game is key

Even after a disheartening few years, Brazil is fighting to become a world power, a desire shared by Colombia. One of the inaugural participants in the World Rugby’s WXV, the Colombians are also trying to build their own system

“WXV can help us drive up the player and fan numbers,” says director of organisational management, Catalina Palacio. “We have gradually overcome hurdles, like creating 10s tournaments, then 12s and some regions are now finally playing with full XVs setups. Our focus is also set on developing youth national tournaments and in 2023 we had 1,000 and 1,500 licensed women’s and men’s U18 players. We hope by 2028 to have extended it to U14 and maybe beyond.”

Colombia is noted for its joyous sporting canvas, with football, basketball, cycling, volleyball, athletics and speed skating some of its main draws. Palacio acknowledges rugby has “a long way to go” to challenge the status quo for popularity.

“We are starting to have a good critical mass, but far away from filling stadiums,” she adds. “For rugby to grow in the region we need to have better structures, a bigger and more loyal fanbase. Argentina has an advantage of 100 years, something we will never be able to equalise.

Colombia competed at last year’s WXV3 tournament in Dubai. (Photo by Christopher Pike – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

“Colombia has honed its internal modus operandi, but we still haven’t managed to build new stadiums or infrastructure which belong exclusively to us. If in Uruguay you have a closer link between football and rugby, in Colombia we have been 100% independent from it. It can be an advantage, as it will expose us to more people, but at the same time it can make us dependent in some ways.”

Colombia’s call for South American unions to build common strategies is something shared not only at the top, but also in the youth grades. Sudamerica Rugby, the continent’s governing body, has developed a team to share knowledge and experience across the nations, a forum welcomed by Brazil Rugby Union training and education manager Gabriel Cenamo.

“Growth in my country is happening at full strength, mainly at the youth level,” he says. “We all share the same continent, but the social and rugby cultures are quite different. In Brazil, the main issue is the lack of structure. The union has done a great job but the clubs still face critical challenges to keep up [with the progress of the international sides].”

Cenamo highlights two key areas the region can hang its hat on.

“The women’s game will be the solution for South America as it is growing wildly, with sponsors and people joining them. The other factor is the values we can promote from a young age. I firmly believe in them and what they represent, and how they can be a factor of positive change to everyone.”

South American rugby is a thrilling cacophony of ideas and values, and fans should understand its potential as well as its challenges. The enriching social, historical, and sporting culture has long made rugby folk wonder what the continent may be capable of with more funding, structure and crucially, time. Like a soothing bossa nova song, you just can’t rush it.

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Comments

2 Comments
J
John 72 days ago

Not unless the cartels get interested in rugby like they did w football

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