Rugby endures trying times

Hanging on: Rugby had a vibrant base
Hanging on: Rugby had a vibrant base

The men's rugby national team, The Vultures used to be a force to reckon with, drawing representation from across local clubs. But the fortunes of the national team, and that of the sport in general, have nosedived in recent seasons, observes Staff Writer, CALISTUS KOLANTSHO in this instalment of Whither Botswana Sport

They say rugby is a sport loved by the gentry, played by hooligans. Partly true, partly false, but I have witnessed families come together to have drinks and a braai while enjoying a local game of rugby. The support was massive. There was action in the north with clubs such as EMG Gunners from Selebi-Phikwe and Tuskers from Francistown being tough contenders in the league. But there was a sudden turn in fortunes when the Botswana Defence Force withdrew financial and other assistance for the two clubs.

That paralysed rugby as the ripple effects were felt across. Sharks, Maun Dogs and Gantsi Hungry Lions have since vanished into thin air, leaving rugby poorer. The clubs were affected by lack of funding and lack of developmental coaches. The 7s team and Vultures have dropped in rankings, largely affected by a constricted pool of players. When sport was suspended due to COVID-19, there were only three clubs in the Super League, Cheetahs, Canon Jaguars and Gaborone Hogs. One of the rugby giants, UB Rhinos relegated to the President’s League.

COVID-19 was a blessing in disguise which saved the sport from embarrassment. Prior to the pandemic, clubs in the north were struggling to make it to games in the south. Clubs in the South did not want to travel up North. It was just a sorry situation. Northern schools played lots of rugby even winning BISA competitions. Things went further south when the government suspended sponsoring school sport and therefore development programs were cut. There was Re Ba Bona Ha (RBBH) project in three Selebi-Phikwe Primary Schools being Tebogo, Phikwe and Reuben Mpabanga. The programme was led by Tosca Segaise.

National teams performed dismally just before COVID-19 hit and it could have been worse last year.

All the teams have dropped in rankings and if things do not change, it could get worse. In 2019, rugby elected a new board led by Sean Irish. “I am not aware of their plans. Look, it is the same old thing, usually BRU boards are made up of ‘teams’ which means bootlickers and yes men and women. Whatever the president says goes and in this case he knows more than anyone on the board,” said former national team player, Osi Kopano. He believes that the board will not progress and the league does not have sponsors.

Rugby relies on the government and Africa Rugby for funding. But the government grant has been reduced, which will affect BRU programmes. “Look, we spent our lives dedicated to the sport and we did not get rewarded. We did not want money but a pat on the back. COVID-19 has shown us that we need to grow up and focus on our responsibilities.

We still love the game but the drivers need to introspect,” said a disappointed Kopano. Jaguars managing director, Feddy Mutenheri shifted the blame to COVID-19 saying it dealt a blow to rugby. “While the current board was trying to revive the sport, COVID came with its limitations such as lockdowns and the suspension of sport. This meant that players remained largely inactive. Clubs could not survive because of lack of finance,” he said. Mutenheri said there is hope as they are slowly returning to the field and once there is activity, they will start from where they left off and "I believe we will grow from there". He pointed out that local rugby is not at a professional level and those who play it do it for the love of the game.

“The union has little it could do to revive rugby except to create an environment where rugby could be played but it is the duty of clubs and their structures to keep the fire burning,” Mutenheri said. For his part, former EMG Gunners player and administrator, Modesto Madzambi said the situation is difficult and there is no retention of young talent. “BRU should pull up their socks, make sure that they increase the number of clubs in the Super League. Rugby should change the way it has been operating. We need exposure hence sponsors are not coming forward. We need to see our matches being broadcast on television,” he said. Madzambi said players have lost interest in rugby because there is no reward. He said if things were equal, rugby should be a safety net for unemployed players. “Players quit at a young age, around 30 years when they are at the peak of play because they are putting their bodies on the line for nothing. We have come to a point where players are in sport for money.

They are sweating for nothing,” he said. Madzambi said when the league ends, everyone goes in different directions hence there is nothing to share. He said for a very long time rugby has been struggling with facilities, especially playing grounds. Regarding the relegation of Rhinos, Madzambi said the union should assist the club. He said when the league finally starts, some games should be played in Selebi-Phikwe, Maun and Francistown as a way of attracting new talent and stakeholders.

Editor's Comment
Where Are The Vaccines?

The government has without a doubt come up with good initiatives such as partnering with private medical practitioners in the vaccine roll-out. This was indeed a welcome development that reduced congestions at government vaccination centres.Well, unfortunately, the celebrations were short-lived. People flocked to the vaccination centres in large numbers and most of the private clinics are currently left with no vaccines and unending telephone...

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