Despite only playing regular international rugby since 2003, Senegal are already ranked in the top eight in Africa and are 43rd in the world. Although they are out of contention to qualify for the 2015 World Cup, they have certainly shown that they can compete with the other African countries, having lost to the big men of Namibia by just two points in 2012 and by only three in 2008.
“Our scrums and lineouts are sometimes not that good, but our men are very brave, we have very aggressive defence which shows there is a lot of solidarity in the team. When we play against Namibia, they only just beat us,” Jérôme Gérard, the secretary-general of the Fédération Sénégalaise de Rugby (FSR) says.
This rapid improvement has all come about because of the FSR’s focus on making rugby an attractive sport for the local population, rather than just a pursuit of immigrants.
“Rugby has been played in Senegal by French colonialists since the 1920s and they created a union in 1960. But it was only for the French; for 20-30 years rugby was a game only for the French colonists and the military.
“But Senegalese youngsters became curious and in the late 1990s there was real development thanks to a new policy aiming to develop rugby in the schools. The FSR increased the visibility of the game, before that it was really unknown.
“Rugby took off in 2005 when Senegal participated in their first Rugby World Cup qualifying and played six international games. The union identified players of Senegal origin in France and we tried to build a strong national team with expats to raise the profile of the game,” Gérard explains.
All of this has led to the International Rugby Board (IRB) increasing their generous development grant every year, Senegal being one of the few African nations to enjoy these increases.
“This recognition of our work is obviously very pleasing and it shows that we are growing rugby in Senegal. We also get technical and training support from the IRB and the Confederation of African Rugby [CAR] – professionals come to Senegal and deliver short, intense courses,” Gérard says.
The health of the game is, of course, inextricably linked to the state of refereeing and Gérard is particularly grateful for the IRB’s assistance in this regard.
“We have had very good support to train our referees. Top referees have come from France since 2006/7 for one or two weeks every year. It has allowed us to build a training strategy for referees, which is very important for us. You can’t play rugby without referees.”
Sylvain Mane is a product of these programs, the 22-year-old being Senegal’s first international referee, currently undergoing high-level training in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
The FSR is also working to change the concentration of rugby clubs in the capital, Dakar.
“In the past two to three years, the union has aimed to extend our programs to other regions and there are now seven or eight new entities, especially in the northern city of Saint-Louis. Not all of these clubs play 15s, some of them start with Sevens,” Gérard says.
In 2005, the national rugby championships comprised just five clubs, all of them made up of French immigrants; eight years later, there were 12 clubs and all but one of them was fully Senegalese. This year 18 clubs came to at least one of the national championships, whether it be men’s, women’s, 15s or Sevens.
The FSR have achieved all this with just two paid employees!
“We remain a humble organisation, only two people extract a salary, all the rest are volunteers. We are amazed at the budgets some teams had for the Africa Cup 1B in Tunisia last month – it was almost what we have for an entire year! And yet we’ve stayed in the top eight for the last three years,” Gérard says.
Such economic constraints mean the FSR operate without much leeway, but Gérard says qualifying for the 2019 World Cup is the target, but this won’t happen without improved financial resources.
“If we can generate more revenue, get more sponsors, then qualifying for the 2019 World Cup could be a real target. But it’s very difficult for us to get on TV, from time to time they will send a reporter, a few times a year. Last year, when we hosted the Africa Cup Group B, we negotiated coverage for the first time and we hope to get a magazine show going on TV. But we need resources to do that and we’ll try and get one or two sponsors as well,” Gérard says.
The passion on the field is clearly being matched in the boardroom and, the rest of Africa be warned, Senegalese rugby is on the rise.