By Jonathan Jenkins
Everyone needs a bit of myth to build their story around, a brush with greatness, a loose connection to some greater history. Especially if you want to build a national sport from the thirsty limestone rocks of the northeastern Caribbean.
It’s no surprise then to hear Turks and Caicos Islands RFU president Keith Burant recount the tale of how Admiral Horatio Nelson landed a rugby team on Grand Turk Island in 1783 to take on the French, not long before launching an unsuccessful military assault.
The game is said to be the first on the islands. And the battle was one of the very few Nelson lost. It’s a stirring tale, almost certainly apocryphal given it was 23 years before William Webb Ellis was born and 123 years before France and England played a Test match.
But it reveals a little something about the zest for the game Burant and other Turks and Caicos Islanders are bringing to their quest to develop rugby in an otherwise inhospitable locale.
Home to a mere 30,000 souls spread over eight main islands and 299 smaller ones, mostly uninhabited, Turks and Caicos has always hosted a healthy population of ex-patriate Brits. What it doesn’t host is much in the way of grass, which restricted rugby enthusiasts on the islands to touch and high rates of injury.
Only 28 inches of rain falls each year
“Growing grass down here is a bit of a challenge,” Burant says. “We’re semi-arid and we only get 28 inches of rain a year. We secured some land and put in our own irrigation system. After a couple of years we managed to get our own grass field and clubhouse together.”
“That was really the huge chunk moving forward. We secured the land five years ago and we’ve been playing on Meridian Field for the last two years. I believe we’re the only club in the Caribbean that owns their own field.”
Burant says he’s lived in Turks and Caicos most his life but he graduated from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Not surprisingly, he works for the company that bears the pitch’s name as Meridian Trust Company Ltd’s managing director.
Sponsorship aside, locals raised more than US$150,000 of their own over 10 years to build the three-acre site, underground irrigation system and 20,000 gallon cistern. It’s now the home of the national Flamingos, and the goal is to stock that home with local talent.
The islands boast four clubs with a mere 150 players but Burant says they’re constantly feeding in kids from the 250 who are enrolled annually in schools rugby programmes.
Strong youth programme is in place
“At the same time we started getting the field going, we also started teaching kids to play rugby on the beach,” Burant says. “We actually started teaching them two sports – rugby on the sand and then they all wanted to go for a swim afterwards. Funny enough, most Caribbean kids don’t know how to swim. So we ended up teaching them how to swim as well.
“Many of these young men and women have turned out to be pretty good athletes. We took a squad down to the NACRA Under 19 Championship this summer and we won gold in the trophy division. It’s the first-ever championship at an international level for the Turks and Caicos Islands. The country was pretty proud.”
Another big step was hosting Jamaica in the Turks and Caicos’s first official Test match at home in January. The result was 31-13 for the visitors but Burant says it was an excellent first effort.
“The scoreline was pretty unflattering. We had the majority of possession and the majority of territorial advantage but every time we gave up the ball they were making 30, 40 , 50 metres and anytime they were able to round a corner it was pretty hard to catch them. Nonetheless, the team on the field did a pretty good job and the country was very impressed. We had the prime minister and the governor taking pictures with the players after the game.”
'Best rugby in the Caribbean'
The next big challenge is picking men's and women’s Sevens sides for the NACRA tournament in November – no picnic in a country where players outside the main centre Providenciales need to fly or take a ferry for selection. Travel outside the country isn’t any easier. Burant says most flights heading south have to first head north to Miami, 700 miles away.
Winning IRB membership might help with that but it’s a long road. The Islands aren’t independent but a British Overseas Territory and have no functioning Olympic Committee but success on the field will help, Burant says.
“We’ve got the best beaches in the world and the best rugby in the Caribbean,” he says. “The executive is committed to making rugby the dominant sport here within five years and we’re well on the way.”
This feature forms part of our Around The Regions series exploring the game beyond its traditional heartlands. Do you have an interesting story to tell about rugby around the world? Let us know by emailing email@example.com.
By Jonathan Jenkins