Rugby Union: Rugby Is The New Goat Polo

Our rugby expert discusses Afghanistan’s first rugby tournament, the knock out that is Sonny Bill Williams and Irish rugby looking its doors to outsiders.

Another side of Afghanistan Kabul. Population 3.9 million and the capital of Afghanistan, a place whose name in recent years has negative and powerful connotations both here and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean for nigh on a decade. The pursuit of the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden has stereotyped the country to a place that is barren and dangerous. But like most stereotypes, they are usually unfair and not a reflection of the truth. Yes I may like a bit of roast beef and a cup of tea and wouldn€™t be adverse to wearing a bowler hat if I€™m honest, but that€™s not the point. Not all English are like that, not all Germans are efficient and not all Italians eat pasta. But one of the dozen or so pitches at the Chaman Huzuri ground in central Kabul last month was a scene that could have been taken from anywhere in the UK on a Saturday afternoon and dispelled any stereotypes of what the Afghans were like. In November the Afghan Rugby Federation won affiliation from the Asia Rugby Football Union in the latest development in a part of the world that is taken the oval ball to its heart. The result of this affiliation was the organisation of its first ever official rugby tournament, the Kabul Sevens Rugby Tournament. Ten teams from four provinces took part on the dry and bumpy pitches for the two day event, sponsored by the British Embassy who helped with the organisation and refereeing too. In a country torn apart by war for so long, the organisers have high hopes for rugby as a sport and that one day it would be as popular as buzkashi, the national sport. While rugby needs little more than a pigs bladder shaped item (ideally a ball), buzkashi requires a horse for each player, something that is beyond most people. The reason for this you see, is buzkashi is probably best described as, well, a game of polo with the carcass of a headless goat. I know, lovely, eh? But each to their own. With only 220 registered players there is a long way to go, but as proved around the world, rugby has a great knack for breaking down barriers and captivating those that get involved or watch it. €œWhat€™s the name of this game? Why is the ball shaped like that? Why is the goal so high?€ excitedly asked 15-year-old Abdul Rassol. €œI like this game, it€™s fantastic. But where is the goalkeeper?€ When ruled by the Taliban any sporting opportunity was restricted in the country, denying what is so countries in areas that have had a tough time and outlet and an escape from the problems on the other side of the touchline. More traditional games like cricket and football growing steadily, as proven by all the competing teams wearing a mixture of football shirts to play. Rugby though is probably the best fit for a decidedly tough set of people. €œThe Afghans are big and strong and fit. They€™re not afraid of physical contact.€ Says Steve Brooking, and Englishman helping with referee duties. €œRugby needs a lot of power. I thought this is a sport I can play,€ said Mohammad Yaman Nazary, 23, his huge frame barely fitting into his Brazilian football shirt. €œWe want rugby to be more popular than football and for our team to beat the neighbouring countries. €œWe want to show the Afghan people that we can be heroes in sport.€ Home is where the half-back is In an effort to boost the Irish provincial sides with home grown talent, the Ireland Rugby Football Union has made changes to further restrict the number of foreign players the three top sides can have in their squads. The IRFU have said that the three teams of Munster, Leinster and Ulster may only have one non-Ireland qualified player per position across all the provinces. The fourth province Connacht will not be affected due to agreeing a new programme of development with the IRFU. The changes will come into effect from the start of the 2013-14 season and mean that there will be at least two qualified Irish players in each position. If there is a conflict between the provinces if for example, two sides wish to sign a player in the same position, the final decision will be made by the IRFU based on whose need is greater. Additionally, all future injury replacements must be Irish eligible and there can be no more than five non-Irish players in the side. The move is, naturally, to develop the player base for the international side and ensuring players brought in are worth it, not just to fill a gap and take away the chance for a young Irish player. No doubt it will have a positive effect and ensure there is a continued conveyor belt of young stars rising through the ranks to fill the boots of the likes of O€™Gara and O€™ Driscoll whose international careers are nearing their natural end. But for an Englishman used to the system we have, it all seems a bit Orwellian. Ireland uses centralised contracts whilst in England players are contracted to their clubs ultimately, with benefits being passed to the clubs when they €˜lend€™ their players to the national set up. The Irish system is much more dictatorial, with the IRFU having the power to tell teams to rest certain players if a big Irish game is coming up. As a result there is no doubt the top provincial sides have excelled. Leinster and Munster€™s dominance of the Heineken Cup says it all. It also seems to mean there is an increased loyalty and dedication to keeping it local amongst the players, with Tommy Bowe€™s move to the relatively far flung fields of the Ospreys proving to be more the exception than the rule. The Provinces are well established and inspire staying power that the Welsh RFU will no doubt be (fittingly) green with envy at, as their top players seem to be saying au revoir with frightening regularity now. It will be interesting to see if this is the next step Ireland need to translate their provincial successes into international success as the national side has been the nearly men of Europe for quite some time now and normally finds itself battling for position in the middle of the Six nations table. The contrast to the revolving door of an airports arrivals lounge that is the English Premiership will be fascinating to watch in the coming years, with the big name Southern hemisphere boys taking on more and more lads from the Emerald Isle. Watch this space. Back in the ring The mercurial giant that is Sonny Bill Williams has announced the next stage of his intriguing boxing career. Fresh from winning the World Cup last year, the New Zealand centre cum winger has announced his intention to fight for the New Zealand heavyweight title. For those that don€™t know, Sonny Bill is one of those rare beasts that can profess to be talented across several sports and enjoys a bit of sparring in his spare time. As part of his contract to ensure he stayed in new Zealand, he is allowed to pursue a professional boxing career to make up the shortfall in wages he would have received had he remained in the big paying French league. So far in his four fights his opposition has, well, been €˜limited€™ shall we say. The exertion of walking to the ring has done half the job for a couple of them, but now Williams is set to step up against Richard Tutaki. Tutaki has 40 matches under his belt and on February 8th will see if one of rugby€™s biggest stars can match his success on the rugby field. Credit to Williams for stepping up the standard of his opponents, something he has been criticised for in the past. A quick visit to your favourite video sharing website will reveal the array of tricks Sonny Bill has on the rugby field that have served him both for his club the Crusaders and for the All Blacks. It will be interesting to see if he can add a heavyweight belt to that winner€™s medal.

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Follow @BallInTouch on Twitter to keep up to date with all the latest rugby news and columns. Jeff Ball is a Geordie with a Newcastle Falcons season ticket, a rugby coaching badge, a bias for Newcastle United on Playstation games and was terrified by Jurassic Park as a child. For more of his personal musings following him on Twitter @JeffreyBall If you have any comments about this story please post a comment.