By Zilia Zara, in Dubai
If God is Brazilian, as the proverb goes in the South American country, 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.
For the last week Brazil have been in Dubai, playing in the inaugural Emirates Airline Cup of Nations, their first ever international Fifteens Tests outside of South America – a big step for a country with ambitions of qualifying for the Rugby World Cup in the not too distant future.
“It is fantastic to be here, to play outside of South America,” admitted wing Daniel Gregg. “It is a great tournament with great teams at a high level of rugby. 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.”
A sentiment echoed by Vitor Medeiros, the only player in the Cup of Nations squad from the north of Brazil. “We didn’t know many things about the other teams before coming. 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 and are big built, but the players from Kenya, they run like the wind.”
Brazil’s emphatic win 66-3 win over the UAE on Tuesday, and the way they bounced back from the disappointment of a last gasp 27-25 loss to Kenya days earlier, shows they are ready for international competitions like the Cup of Nations.
The people back home are starting to pay attention too. Brazil’s matches in the Cup of Nations are being shown live on Band Sports TVl, and rugby has been the subject of a Cannes Film Festival-nominated commercial series, which talked of the rugby’s popularisation and introduced the sport’s first “Maria Chuteira,” the name given to Brazilian football groupies.
In a soccer-mad country, media have started to pick up on the curious phenomenon of rugby players leaving the field without drama when shown a yellow or red card. After the local championships were broadcast, programmes started analysing the differences between the two cultures, bringing extra attention to the game.
Brazil has shown steady progress in the recent years, both in men’s and women’s Sevens and Fifteens, climbing the ladder into the top tier of the South American Championship, alongside Chile and Uruguay, two years ago.
While Brazilian rugby success pales in comparison to its run of dominance in the nation’s first sporting love of football, its emergence is happening just in time for Rugby Sevens’ much anticipated debut on the Olympic stage in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The ‘Olympic factor’ means interest in the sport is increasing, with new clubs being established in diverse and remote areas of the country. While increase in media coverage contributes to the growth of the domestic game, the real boost came from an unprecedented win in an age-old sporting rivalry.
“I think it started to grow when we beat Argentina in the Sevens in the South American tournament this February,” explained 8 Nicholas Smith said. “It started to pick up from there.”
Brazil stunned Argentina with a 7-0 victory in the pool stages on home soil in Bento Gonçalves before going on to finish third and qualify for Sevens’ debut in 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 only try against Argentina. When the Cup of Nations finishes, Duque will head to France for trials with Top 14 and Division Two teams. His football 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.
“It is a huge responsibility to participate in this tournament,” Duque said. “We are here to show our value. I never expected to go this far in such a different sport. It is an experience I will carry for the rest of my life.”
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 19th century. In 1894, he returned to the São Paulo Athletic Club (SPAC), then known as the English Club, with two balls – a rugby ball and a soccer ball.
This marked the beginning of soccer … and rugby … in Brazil. Ever since then SPAC has a football pitch and a rugby pitch, but while football has thrived since the early 1900s, rugby never made it to the front line of national sports.
Women’s rugby has a similarly romantic history. A small grassroots initiative in 1997, the women’s teams developed rapidly. The first Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens competition in 2009 was a great challenge for them and they came 10th, but in Pan-America they have been undefeated for more than 10 years.
Duque was exposed to rugby early on, but that is far from the norm in Brazil and one of the challenges facing the Confederação Brasileira de Rugby (CBRu) is getting players into the game at a younger age. To that end, they have placed the national team under the control of an Argentine, Rodrigo Camardon who has been in charge for 18 months now.
Rugby transcends rivalries
“The big difference (to Argentina) is not the knowledge of rugby, the main reason of difference is that in Brazil players start playing rugby relatively old,” explained Camardon. “Since this year they understood that, and all clubs are (now) fighting to involve children in 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 is they start playing at 15, 16, 17 years old, but it is better to start this sport when you are a kid, at age six or seven. It is very difficult to build the core skills at a later age.”
Camardon, who speaks fluent Portuguese, is highly respected in Brazilian rugby circles for his contribution to the sport’s development. His Argentinean passport is an afterthought.
“I have a very simple coaching style,” Camardon said. “The main thing for me to work on is the human relationship. Brazilian players are very easy to work with. They are easy going. I don’t know if it is because of the weather, hot all year, but it wasn’t hard for me. 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 for me it was very easy.”
In fact, Camardon’s success and its effect on the state of Brazilian rugby have put the sport outside the two nations’ bitter rivalry.
“We have a lot of rivalry with Argentina, in soccer, in handball, swimming, whatever. But in rugby it is different,” admitted CBRu Board member Roberto Germanos. “When I see Argentina play in anything, I root for the other team. But in rugby, I’m all for Argentina. There is a great respect for them.”
The CBRu’s work has been crucial to building a rugby infrastructure, in addition to changing the sporting culture of a large, diverse nation like Brazil. Traditionally an elitist sport, mostly practiced by those exposed to British or French culture, the Union now makes it its priority to spread the game to all levels of society.
Planning for the future
Germanos, one of the founding members of GRAB, the Grupo de Apoio ao Rugby Brasileiro or support group for Brazilian Rugby, is one of the new generation of young professional management who combine their professional legal and financial planner background with the management of the Union, and who come with a different mindset to the development of the game.
What started as a surprisingly successful fundraiser for a South American tour in 2009 helped the Union secure influential sponsors and the adaptation of corporate development strategies to be applied to the conscious development of the game.
Germanos explained: “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.”
This makes Brazil, a nation of more than 200 million people, truly an untapped source of rugby potential. Rugby is being progressively taught in some public schools now as part of a grassroots movement supported by the Union. The game’s social side also has the potential to bring people together in a country that has its social divides.
Francois Pienaar, captain of the RWC 1995 winning Springboks, introduced the Brazilian to the notion that the sport could be used 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. “Eight months ago on a tour in South America he came to Brazil for less than 24 hours just to talk to GRAB President Eduardo Mufarej and CBRu President Sami Arap, and he saw that rugby could really become a great thing in Brazil.”
This approach has already manifested in parts of Brazil where it can do the most good, namely the favella, or slums, of Sao Paulo. There, Rugby para Todos, or Rugby for All, sends players into slums to teach the sport to disadvantaged youths.
It is a very successful programme now and it has an educational side as well, encouraging the children 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, including respect, and the importance of those values.
Initiatives like this have rugby’s long-term development on a solid course, but the short-term is also an important part of the story of Brazilian rugby.
“When Rio was announced, it was the feeling of everything coming together,” explained Germanos. “We were kicked forward. We were trying to move and someone just kicked the ball forward to the field for us. It was wonderful. It raised interest for the people. Now we have many initiatives we wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the Olympics
“The specific targets for the next four years are to build up a well-oiled technical committee, bringing in high-quality professionals and development. On this basis, we keep on trying to empower the federations to empower themselves.”
The next big step for Brazilian rugby will be qualifying for the Rugby 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.”