By Jonathan Jenkins
These are busy times for the Federación Mexicana de Rugby (FMR) but it's the sort of busy that no CEO can complain about. Alberto Ruiz Luca de Tena is that man and, along with many other hard-working and passionate Rugby followers, he is committed to developing a Game that is fast becoming mainstream in a country of 120 million people.
De Tena has a lot on his plate but since he was appointed to the post in 2010, the results have been eye-opening, which is a tribute to him and those around him.
“Rugby is all over Mexico at the moment,” de Tena says, on the phone from the back of a cab in Mexico City.
“Seven years ago, Rugby was in just six or seven states (out of 32). But thanks to the growth and to strategic planning, it’s now present in 25 or 26 states. There has been an incredible, unexpected and overwhelming growth in the past three years,” he says, quick to point out that he is only one of many people working towards that end.
Rugby can trace its roots back to the 1930s in Mexico but it’s a spotty tale, with long periods where the Game vanishes completely. As late as the 1990s, Rugby was essentially non-existent but pulled itself back by 2006 and now, in such a vast country, the potential growth is there for all to see.
Olympic inclusion opened doors for Rugby
A major turning point was the 2009 decision to include Sevens in the Olympics and Pan-American Games. That – along with financial help from the IRB and the enthusiastic assistance of the Olympics-friendly Mexican government – helped galvanise the sport.
“Becoming an Olympic sport opened the door for Rugby in Mexico,” de Tena says. “To have the Olympic Games as well as financial support from the IRB, the sports ministry has allowed us to start the professionalisation of the staff of the Union. That led to the creation of development officers and enabled us to contract and recruit national coaches and so on, to have a mass participation programme that we can deliver equipment and training to youths.”
State representative teams are popping up all over the country and competing in the national youth Olympics. University Rugby has blossomed from just four programmes in 2011 to 31 now. In 2010, there was just one age grade competition for Under 19s. The FMR has since added Under 16s and Under 21s, as well as Under 19 and Under 22 competitions for women. Just 45 women played Rugby in 2012 but now 400 have taken up the Game and the national team just won a Caribbean Sevens competition.
In 2011, Mexico’s second city of Guadalajara hosted the Pan-Am Games, including Rugby, and that gave another big boost to the sport.
Rugby is challenging the primacy of soccer
“To have the Pan-Am Games was great,” de Tena says. “It helped to create another area with Rugby because at that time it was primarily played in Mexico City. To have the games in Guadalajara helped create another strong area in the country and it showed other areas that they, too, could become Rugby leaders in Mexico.”
The Games also gave Rugby a chance to shine in a country otherwise dominated by soccer and American football.
“The reception was very good there and there was a lot of promotion. In 2011, many people wouldn’t have known what Rugby was. They would ask questions like ‘Do you use horses and buckets?’”
“Now even when you go in a cab or a taxi, more people understand that Rugby is a game with an oval ball and you have to score points at the end of the field.”
Much of the credit goes to the boundless enthusiasm of de Tena, a 31-year-old industrial engineer from Spain who thought he was just passing through Mexico for a research project into youth and sport. The project was a success and he was soon approached by the president of the FMR about becoming chief executive.
Attracting more youngsters is main goal
A rugby player since the age of 17, he seized the chance and has since moved quickly to institute a strategic plan for Mexican Rugby, targeting youth, women and Sevens development. The playing season was switched to a September to April Fifteens window and an April to June Sevens season. The Sevens season now features 19 tournaments, up from four.
De Tena’s main goal though, is attracting more youth to the Rugby code and to drive down the average age when a Mexican kid takes up the sport.
“It’s a lengthy, lengthy thing to do. You have the parents and you have the schools. It took us a while. At the end of 2012, thankfully our good work was seen positively by the IRB and we were chosen to be one of the pilot countries for the Get Into Rugby programme.
“We now have a name, we now have a brand. We have a training system, we have equipment. We now have a programme that we can approach institutions, schools, universities. Before, our approach wasn’t that formal. We didn’t have a programme but now word is spreading.”
Indeed it is spreading. Mexico City just became the third municipality to request a Get Into Rugby programme and the goal is to attract 10,000 youth to the Game over the next semester.
“In the next few years, we expect that people will start picking up Rugby at the age of seven or eight years old,” de Tena says.
For de Tena, who says he scored the job in the first place because his “Rugby spirit was the right spirit”, growing Mexican Rugby is a perfect fit.
“This has been one of the best experiences of my life. I could die today and I would be very happy.”
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