Rugby and Islam


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It was the British colonialists in the late 19th century and the French colonialists of the early 20th century that took Rugby and spread it around the world. The big difference between the two was that the French allowed but did not encourage the locals to play whereas the British discouraged and even prevented the indigenous people from playing. The British attitude was "you don't think we would let one of them join our club, do you?"

The British formed clubs in their colonized countries, but all members were white ex-patriots, originally British but later Australian, New Zealanders, South African, Canadian and American workers. Only after independence did locals of the former British Empire start to play Rugby.

The French did not have the same attitude and Rugby became a game enjoyed in the police, military and higher education colleges. Any good players were encouraged to progress and many moved to universities in France and played in the French competition. This still continues today.

Inevitably, Islamic countries would come to know about the game. Because of the British attitude, Rugby has not taken off in the Middle East. There is an Arabian Gulf RFU centered in the Emirates of Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar, etc, with the Emirs providing grounds and after match venues. One of the reasons that locals could not play even if the ex-pats wanted them was that the liquor laws that prevents Moslems drinking alcohol.

However, over the past 20 years Rugby's profile has lifted and, though will never replace football as the popular code, more young men and women are involved in playing the game. Several Arab Rugby clubs have been formed in the emirates, thanks to the exposure of the Dubai Sevens. Rugby was a part of the 2006 Asian Games with a seven-a-side competition and an all Arab team from Qatar represented the Gulf.

So far, Rugby has not taken off in the rest of the Middle East. Surprisingly, there is a five-team league competition in Lebanon, formed by a group of Australians of Lebanese heritage. There seems to be only one Rugby club in Lebanon, the Beirut Phoenicians, who only seem to get to play visiting warships. Apart from social club in Cairo, there is no Rugby in Egypt nor Libya or the strife-ridden countries of Sudan, Somalia or Ethiopia.

Further north, there are five Rugby clubs in Turkey: the Istanbul Ottomans, Kadikoy, Girne Pumas, Saint Benoit and Koc School. Apart from playing an odd game against a Greek team, there is no outside contact.

Iran is a great surprise. The Iran Rugby Union was formed only five years ago through university contacts and has now grown to over 1,000 players, both men and women. The national team took part in the Dubai Sevens veteran tournament but that has been the extent of international exposure. Interestingly, Rugby is played and popular with women.

Moving east, The Pakistan Rugby Union was formed in 2000 and joined the Asian Rugby Football Union. Their first international was in 2003 and currently play in the fifth division of the Asian tournament. Last year they beat their other pool members, the Philippines and Guam. Pakistan has now been admitted as an IRB member.

Probably the one big exception to the British exclusion mentality is Malaysia. Rugby is extremely popular on the peninsula and has been played since 1902. The game is still popular at school level and is played in all states, but economics prevent many boys from playing after leaving school. The major trophy is the "HMS Malaya Cup" which was first presented in 1921 and still is awarded to the winners of the Malay sevens. It was here in Malaysia that the ten-a-side form of the game was invented and is quite popular in Asia. Malaysia is a founding member of the Asian RFU and a member of the IRB.

The largest Moslem nation is Indonesia and though Rugby was played during the Dutch occupation, it died out after competing in the 1986 Hong Kong sevens. However, a group of Australian, New Zealand and Welsh ex-pats, along with local Indonesians, the game was revived in 2004. There are now 250 players and the Union is a member of the Asian RFU and play in the sixth division. They were runners-up beating Brunei and Laos but losing to Cambodia. There is a move to get the game developed in schools and an IRB funding grant is being used for this purpose. The national team is known as the "Rhinos."

It was the former USSR that spread Rugby into the Moslem Central Asian Nations. Although only Kazakhstan is a member of the Asian RFU, the game is played in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and between them. Under the Soviet regime, the capital Almaty was a Rugby stronghold with a team in the national league. The withdrawal of the Soviet army saw a big decline and when the Kazak RFU was founded in 1993, it had more women players than men. In 2002, the women's team was the Asian champions and has participated in four Women's Rugby World Cups. All the players are from the army. Recruitment has seen more men playing now, and Kazakhstan men's team is starting to move up the Asian divisions. The Union has formed a Rugby Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in order to improve, as well as formed a school’s program. All bemoan the fact that Rugby needs to be an Olympic sport to get government funding. In Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the game is confined to the military and universities and the only international games are against Kazakhstan.

However, it is the West African Moslem nations - that were under French control - where Rugby is of the highest standard and most popular. Morocco, Tunisia, Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Cameroon all have long-established controlling Unions and players from all walks of life. France uses these nations to recruit good players for both their clubs and national teams. Probably the most famous is Abdelatif Benazzi who played for Morocco before joining a French club and going on to be capped 78 times for France. Morocco played its first international in 1931 against Spain, for a loss and a win in the two games but did not play again until 1967, when Morocco joined the European championship run by FIRA. Morocco made the first division in 1983 but was beaten easily by France and Romania. After falling down the rankings, Morocco left the European series and joined the African Cup competition and won it in 2003 and 2005. Their sevens side is regularly plays in the top circuit, doing very well in Hong Kong. All top players ply their trade in the French and Spanish national championship which lowers the level of the local competition

Although not a major sport in Tunisia, Rugby has a high standard. It did not play an international until 1979 but have reached the first division of the FIRA European tournament but has now joined the African Cup, being runner-up in 2002. The team is now two games away from making the 2007 Rugby World Cup finals. Next month they will play Portugal on a home and away basis for the final pool place. At the Sevens, Tunisia last year beat Australia and Scotland, which shows how well they are improving.

There is no Rugby in Algeria but there are a few Algerians who play club Rugby in France. Due to economic conditions, the game has not progressed all that much in Senegal, Mali or Cameroon. Any good players leave for France. The current French flanker, Serge Betsen was born in Cameroon but his family migrated to France when he was nine.

The one bolter is Cote D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). They represented Africa in the 1995 WRC but were clearly out of their depth, soundly beaten in their pool matches by France, Scotland and Tonga. The tragedy was that their captain and best player, the French based Max Brito was paralyzed in one of the pool matches. He is being cared for by the Rugby community but shows how far the team was out of its depth. Again the player base in the country is small but the national team known as the "Elephants" seem to play above themselves. The union is fairly new, formed in 1961 and joined the IRB in 1988.

Maybe this will help to dispel the myths that sport is not held in any regard in Islamic nations and that women are discouraged from participating. Though Rugby is dominated by football (soccer), the game is held in high regard as are the players. There is no religious pressure not to play. When Rugby is an Olympic sport, governments will fund the game, whether Moslem or not.


I got this via e-mail:

HI… How are you? I hope everything is fine with you …

Just I read ur report on Islamic rugby and i have just one note ,

" there is no Rugby in Egypt nor Libya or the ….. " just I wanna tell u that I play Rugby in Libya since 1998 ( Tripoli Barbarians RFC ) :)

And thanks a lot for everything ,,,

By the way I like ur site … Good Luck!!!

My Best Regards !!!

Libyan Player


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