Former Bordeaux-Begles president Kevin Venkiah has been in Mauritius for 10 years and has been able to watch rugby on the small Indian Ocean island steadily grow, such that there are now 1,200 registered players.
Venkiah has been the Rugby Union of Mauritius (RUM) president since March 2013 and he is at the helm during exciting times. As with many former African colonies, rugby in Mauritius was dogged by perceptions that it was white and elitist.
“People think that only white people play rugby,” Venkiah says. “When I arrived in Mauritius, 95 per cent of the team was white but we are trying to change the minds of the local communities and make rugby multi-cultural. Our teams now have this. They are mixed, probably 60/40 but we want to get it to 50/50.”
With Venkiah’s excellent French connections – he is very close to the Castres Olympique club – he is able to use visiting players from that great European league to inspire more Mauritian youngsters to take up rugby.
“We have players from clubs like Toulouse, internationals like Pieter de Villiers and Thierry Dusautoir, coming to Mauritius and they spend half-a-day at a coaching clinic. When the youngsters see these stars, they want to play like them. Rugby is not as important as soccer on Mauritius, but it will be in the future,” Venkiah says.
Now ranked in top eight within Africa
What has caught the eye about Mauritian rugby recently has been the promotion of their national side from Africa Cup Division 1C to 1B with victory in their tournament in Botswana in June, meaning they are now ranked in the top eight in Africa and will be playing alongside teams like the Ivory Coast, Senegal and Madagascar.
They beat Zambia 54-17 and overwhelmed Swaziland 134-0, one of the top five highest scores ever recorded in a rugby international, following a creditable 61-17 defeat at the hands of semi-pro South African club champions Rustenburg Impala, who only led 21-10 at half-time.
Both Mauritius and Botswana finished on 10 points in the tournament but the hosts had been beaten 54-9 by Rustenburg and could only beat Swaziland 87-0 and Zambia 66-14, therefore giving Mauritius the title and promotion on points difference.
“Next year we will be in Africa Cup 1B and we would like to stay there for one or two years because that is our time to grow up. Everybody wants to play in the Rugby World Cup and, if we ever qualified, we would be the first Mauritian team sport to participate in a world championship. We have a very young national team at the moment, averaging about 23 or 24 years old. So in five years’ time they will be ready for the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan. We will play for that.”
In order to improve the national team, RUM has encouraged its top young players to follow the many other youngsters going abroad to study and then come home and share their knowledge and experience.
Learn overseas, come back with experience
“We want people to go abroad to play, we push them to go and grow with foreign teams and then come back with experience,” Venkiah says.
RUM has just registered to take part in the IRB’s hugely successful mass-participation programme, ‘Get Into Rugby’ and is on the verge of launching its three-year strategic plan to grow the game in the various communities around the country. It is also looking to jazz up a rather monotonous schedule that has seen Mauritius only travelling for the Africa Cup. Venkiah wants them to take on several foreign clubs as well as the likes of Singapore and Mozambique.
But speaking to this insurance and investment manager is not just a monologue about the Mauritius national team. Venkiah is passionate about growing the grassroots structures that will make the current success sustainable. It’s been a formidable challenge getting into Mauritian schools but progress is being made.
“It’s very hard to get rugby into the schools but little by little we are getting there. We started with the public schools and we give them training for eight weeks and then they have a little tournament. Recently there was a tournament with 150 kids playing and 25 of those have gone straight into clubs,” Venkiah reveals.
Rugby was not introduced to Mauritius by the French but rather by the English, through their army in the early 1900s. In 1928, the game was taken up by Franco-Mauritians and for nearly 50 years there were seven major clubs on the island of little more than 2,000 square kilometres.
The Dodos survived!
But the roots were shallow and, after independence in 1968, the clubs began closing because they had no junior players. Ironically, it was the Dodos club who were left as the sole survivors.
But in the 1990s, youngsters who had been to study in South Africa, England, France and Australia began to bring rugby back to the island and television coverage of the memorable Rugby World Cup 1995, hosted and won by South Africa, also helped create a market for the game.
“One day, we will have six or seven big clubs again and that would make for a very good championship. But at the moment we have four first division clubs and six in the second division, as well as three women’s clubs,” Venkiah says.
“We have also set up four coaching centres and we are playing rugby in the north, on the east coast and in the centre of Mauritius.”
CAR and IRB are supporting Mauritius
The prices of sporting infrastructure means this has not been an easy task for RUM and Venkiah is grateful for the assistance they have received.
“We are a very poor federation in Mauritius but we have made a lot of progress and it’s great to get recognition for that. The International Rugby Board has given us a lot of help, including getting us into full membership,” Venkiah says.
“The Confederation of African Rugby (CAR) has also been very supportive. We have made a lot of progress and it has recognised that. Maybe even one day it can have its congress in Mauritius!”
And with its combination of tropical beaches, friendly people and engaging rugby, there are many worse places to hold such a prestigious gathering.