By Frankie Deges
When Hans Joseph Rausch returned to his native Medellín from Pittsburg State University, Kansas, he brought with him a signed rugby ball presented to him by his team-mates. He had learned to prop while studying in the US and, once back at home, he had the option of keeping it as a sentimental memento or inflating it and trying to start a game. He chose the latter and rugby was born in that part of Colombia.
The year was 1993. In a simple A4-sized advertisement posted in city bars and student areas, he invited locals to enjoy “Rugby: adrenalin 100%”.
“Some 22 showed up to the first meeting were Hans introduced rugby and the next day we had the first training session,” says Carlos Tejada, former national captain and coach.
“Those were great days. It was an adventure, being part of something, different to what we were accustomed to in our country. We felt like we were involved in an extreme sport.” The first game was three months later against a team of foreign expats in Bogotá.
We loved the knocks and bruises
“We loved the knocks and bruises but Hans always understood that we needed an organisation and clubs.”
What started as a dream has turned into a thriving sport that is growing at a rate that has everybody happily surprised. In a country of almost 48 million in the northern tip of South America, the growth of rugby in the past few years has been remarkable. In the first six years, the playing numbers went from 50 to 240. It took five more years to double that amount (550) and since registering 2400 players in 2007, the growth has been steady and sustainable – 3,100 in 2008; 4,200 in 2009; 5,120 in 2010; 7,400 in 2011; 9,213 in 2012; and the current figure for this year stands at an impressive 10,277 players.
From being played by a niche group in the city of Medellín, it is now a national sport that has garnered significant governmental and IRB support.
“We are delighted with the growth of the game, having worked extremely hard to ensure it is with sound, achievable goals and that in the process we retain all of our players,” said Andrés Roberto Gómez Castaño, the dedicated and hardworking president of the Colombian Federation.
Now the game is going places
With the support of both national and regional governments, the game is going places. Earlier this year, when New Zealand Prime Minister John Key visited our President Juan Manuel Santos, a group of young players were invited and the leaders were photographed exchanging gifts. The Colombian government was well aware of the inroads rugby had made in the country and gratefully accepted a rugby ball from Mr Key.
“We have a great ally in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and have already sent players on trips to New Zealand, France, the UK and other parts of South America. They then become our ambassadors in their communities and we grow the game.”
Indeed, a delegation from the ministry presented their impressive credentials at IRB headquarters in Dublin this week. Part of their strategy will be the effective implementation of IRB's ambitious Get Into Rugby mass participation programme, which is going to grow the game even faster in Colombia.
To understand the growth and how it is competing against established sports, a municipal soccer field where some 30 international players first played the game, has now become a dedicated rugby field. There are six of them in Medellín, a city that also houses the federation’s headquarters and more are growing in the nine regions that currently enjoy the game.
There is a sense that Colombia’s at times turbulent history is on the verge of a peaceful new dawn and a forward-thinking society is developing with a genuine need for role models and positive options. In this scenario, rugby has made huge inroads, with sponsors supporting the game that espouses values such as integrity, respect, solidarity, passion and discipline. Since August, local rugby is screened every weekend on free-to-air television, boosting rugby with every broadcast. And with a growing number of rugby fields coming on stream, it seems like the sky is the limit.
José Manuel Diosa comes from the wrong side of town in Medellín. His destiny could have been that of thousands of other “colombianos” from the “barrio”. Yet, he found rugby and his natural talent and charisma has made him the poster boy for the sport. Humble and approachable, he is a rugby coach and with a certain financial stability helps at home.
Many of my friends are dead or in jail
“Life would not have been simple had I not taken the rugby path,” he explains from Medellín. “A lot of my friends growing up took wrong options and are either dead or in jail. Rugby has given me a sense of belonging, a refuge.”
Diosa has played for Los Tucanes for the past four years and travelled to South American Championships both in Sevens and Fifteens and also visited France, all experiences he would have never had had it not been for rugby. A versatile player equally comfortable at fly-half or scrumhalf, he was involved with the Sevens team in the recent World Games in Cali, where there were 25,000 spectators enjoying the two-day competition, which in the end was won by South Africa.
And shortly after, he was playing for the Colombia Fifteens team in Paraguay. Not the finished product yet, the national team has targeted the regional A division as early as 2016. The women’s game is also strengthening and with the game readmitted to the Olympic Games programme from 2016, the potential rewards are also there for the women.
“We are receiving funding and assistance that allows us to prepare both our men and women squads with an eye to Río 2016 but also looking after the establishment and development of the game throughout most regions in Colombia,” says Gómez Castaño. “More and more children are seeing rugby as an option and a future.
This feature forms part of our Around The Regions series exploring the game beyond its traditional heartands. Do you have an interesting story to tell about rugby around the world? Let us know by emailing email@example.com.
By Frankie Deges