By Frankie Deges
The Republic of Ecuador is not difficult to find on a globe. The clue is in the title and, through the middle of this emerging Rugby nation, runs a line that also splits the Rugby world.
But for Rugby purposes Ecuador is firmly in the southern hemisphere and while it may not be as well-known as its regional cousins Argentina, Uruguay or Chile, Ecuador has recently embraced the sport and its goals are lofty.
Recent success in the Confederación Sudamericana de Rugby (CONSUR) C Championship illustrated important growth going on there and, by extension, new ambitions that are taking root.
The question of whether they are in the north or south is not on the agenda of the Federación Ecuatoriana de Rugby (FER), which aims to become an IRB member in the near future, thus joining the ever-growing family of 119 Unions.
The key word is “growth” and that is the focus of FER’s new President Nicolás di Nápoli. To the 14 million “Ecuatorianos”, it is still a very new sport, too easily associated with American football. Winning promotion to CONSUR’s far more competitive B Championship has won the sport some good publicity.
Phone call from President Correa
“That win gave us some coverage in regional and national media and put the Game on the map,” says Argentine-born di Nápoli, a radio personality in his adopted country. “I even got a congratulatory phone call from President Correa.”
With 90 per cent of the more than 400 players being born and bred in the country, there is a lot of teaching to do as oval-ball inexperience is noticeable. Lack of size also comes into the equation: one of the Test second rows is a less-than-towering 1.78m tall.
So the plan, devised by the national federation, is to work hand in hand with the government and includes the addition of Rugby in a sporting kit that gets distributed to all schools. In it, soccer, volleyball and basketball material is normally included but, if the high-level negotiations are fruitful, then Rugby balls, tackle shields and other coaching material will reach 300 schools in the first stage.
“We’ve been told it will happen. We will soon have the opportunity to coach coaches in the country’s seven regions.”
In addition, assistance from CONSUR and the IRB will prove crucial. “There are some very keen people that want to be involved in the Game and we must ensure they learn right.”
Gridiron without protection?
One of them is national captain José Zambrano, 25. “I first thought it was gridiron…without protection,” he says with a smile.
“There were just four of us there that first day some five years ago but soon, as we fell in love with the Game, we grew and we’ve been blessed that our university’s dean is a former Rugby player (born in Chile) and he has been very helpful.”
With the assistance of the communications faculty in the university, the word spread very quickly. There are 12 clubs now and the Game continues to grow.
“We did a lot of our initial learning through the internet,” he recalls of those pioneering days. “Our challenge is to ensure that the cultural side of Rugby is also well taught – nothing is bigger than Rugby, you can’t play without your opponents or a referee so those people must be respected. It is hard to make it grow so we must all be singing the same tune.”
National team is nicknamed 'Los Piqueros'
Fly half or inside centre, Zambrano led the Piqueros – the national team’s nickname honours a blue-legged bird only found in Galápagos – to glory in Costa Rica last year. Having played previously in Sevens tournaments and in 2012 in their debut Fifteens competition, they travelled in December to San José, Costa Rica, where they duly saw off the challenges of the home side, Guatemala and El Salvador, beaten 33-12 in the final game.
“It was a great tournament for us, opening our appetite for future competitions yet acknowledging that this year’s CONSUR B in Colombia will be much, much harder,” explains the captain. “Players have understood this and we are building towards being ready.”
The federation is 100 per cent behind the team and winning in Costa Rica was, in no small way, thanks to two warm-up camps and a lot of behind-the-scenes work that paid off.
“We have very limited budgets,” explains di Napóli. “The government funds us with US$100,000, mainly for travelling, so players work in fund-raising which also gives them a sense of ownership and belonging.”
Development, and the IRB’s mass-participation programme, Get Into Rugby, will ensure the future is well taken care of. With the Game already in the cities of Guayaquil, Quito, Cuenca, Ibarra and Manta, it is reaching others such as Salinas and Península.
Youth Rugby set to launch
The national club tournament will begin in mid-February and will run until mid-July, two pools of six teams each, ensuring a minimum of 15 games. After that, the focus will be on the Piqueros and their preparation for Colombia.
Age grade Rugby is another box the FER hopes to tick soon. There are some youngsters training but without a competition that fits them, they are not yet ready to play senior Rugby. An Under 18 Sevens tournament was played in January and growth plans are underway. A similar pathway is set for the women that are warming to the Game.
“Ecuatorians have a fighting spirit,” adds di Nápoli, the only foreigner in a decision-making position in Ecuatorian rugby. “They have embraced Rugby with passion and it is clear that we will continue to grow.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.