Indian Ocean island rugby: Madagascar
By Jean-Luc Barthes, IRB Newsletter #9
For whatever reason, rugby is the main team sport in the island of Madagascar, the ‘grand island’ as it is called, in the Indian Ocean. No rugby historian has come up with an explanation as to why the game has taken such a hold of the Malgache people, nor has anybody been able to explain why rugby thrives in islands, be they in the South Seas, the Indian Ocean or in the North Sea.
The playing population of Madagascar - with 592,000 square kilometres of territory, nearly twice as large as Britain - is about 20,000, out of about 15 million inhabitants, of which 7,000 or more are not even in the books of the Malgache Federation of Rugby.
I visited Madagascar for the first time in 1999 with a team from the neighbouring island of Reunion.
After about a week of preparations, we arrived at the legendary stadium of ‘Malacam’ - built in 1940 by the French Railway engineers, and undergoing repairs ever since - for the first match against the youth team of Madagascar.
The first surprise was the size of the crowd. Over 4,000 enthusiastic, noisy and competent supporters had crowded the little stand, by far the biggest crowd we had ever had for our matches.
The second surprise was the size of the Malgache players. As we talked amongst ourselves after the warm-up, they were not going to be a problem given their size and bodyweight – not taller than 175 cm and heavier than 70 kilos.
How wrong we were in our assessment was to be the third and the biggest surprise of a rather emotional day.
The velocity and the strength of the Malgache players defied their slight frame, while their tackling was ferocious to say the least. They counter-attacked every time they laid their hands on the ball and their unorthodox style and enthusiasm made us watch in utter amazement. Then, a few minutes before the end of the match, which we were winning narrowly, the crowd left the stand to surround the playing surface.
The spectators were very loud and agitated, chanting slogans in support of their team. I feared the worst as the referee blew the whistle to end an entertaining match. But nothing unpleasant happened. Amazingly, the public calmed down instantly and joined the players on the field chatting amicably, shaking hands, exchanging congratulations and clapping the two teams to the dressing rooms.
A few days later, we thought we knew what to expect when we played against ‘the Makis’, the Madagascar national team, at the grand Mamach stadium. A crowd of 20,000 filled the stands and for Reunion players, used to playing in front of their families and friends, this was a bit of a shock.
We had experienced already the uncompromising nature of the Malgache players, but the test was another story altogether.
We were taken aback by the ferocity of the tackling, the brutal confrontation in the scrum and the total commitment of the Malgache players, running from everywhere at us at 100 miles an hour for the whole duration of the game. The public went positively wild and the entire atmosphere reminded me of the gladiatorial battles in the circuses of ancient Rome.
A few months later I returned to Antananarivo for a coaching course, at which my ‘Malgache education programme’ continued. The course was an eye opener about competence and pride, about tradition and respect. Attended by 50 passionate and competent coaches working with the 140 teams in Antananarivo, the course was an outstanding example of international cooperation at its best.
The manuals of Pierre Villepreux who has run several courses in the country are read with religious fervour by the knowledgeable and passionate Malgache coaches.
My third visit, this time as an IRB Development official, enabled me to understand that all that has been achieved in Malgache rugby, the ever growing numbers, the commitment of players and coaches and public, everything that makes Madagascar a genuine rugby heaven, has been done against enormous odds, despite shortages and poverty, lack of facilities and playing kit.
I visited the training facilities of the two top teams in the Antananarivo league: one trains on a dirt track, a disused construction site in the middle of a housing estate, which has been cleaned and made playable by the players themselves, and the other on a field covered by 20 cm of water all the time.
I have not heard anybody complaining and the commitment in training of the players and coaches had to be seen to be believed.
This is why Madagascar is one of my favourite rugby destinations, and like many other African countries where rugby is thriving, a place where poverty, shortages and lack of facilities do not affect the enthusiasm and passion of the practicants.
Aren’t we privileged to be involved in such a game?!