The golden age of Caribbean rugby
With Saturday’s opening match of the Rugby World Cup 2015 qualifying process little more than 24 hours away, preparations for the encounter between Mexico and Jamaica are at the final stages in Mexico City.
Mexico are particularly delighted to be kicking off the road to Rugby World Cup 2015 in England this weekend in front some distinguished guests, including Rugby World Cup Limited Chairman Bernard Lapasset and England Rugby 2015 ambassador Lawrence Dallaglio, while the prestigious Webb Ellis Cup will also make an appearance.
However, we should not forget that this is the first match of the North America Caribbean Rugby Association (NACRA) Championship 2012, which doubles as the qualifying section that, other than Mexico, is made up of purely Caribbean nations.
So just how strong is Caribbean rugby right now, and is the game progressing in that part of the world? According to Tom Jones, the IRB's Regional General Manager for North America and Caribbean, the answer is a resounding yes.
“I ask people when the golden age of Caribbean rugby was, and they all scratch their heads – that’s when I tell them that the answer is right now," explained Jones. “Never before have the unions here had a sustained period of support from the governing body. The IRB provides investment, technical involvement and tournament support.”
Jones believes the differences between the NACRA qualifying tournament for RWC 2015 and RWC 2011 illustrate the advances being made in the Caribbean.
“For RWC 2011 it was a tournament held in Cayman Islands between eight nations, but NACRA's strategy is to ensure that all participating unions have home matches in an event that concludes in June. This is important to ensuring wider promotion of Rugby within each country, and it is working."
Bermuda are the highest placed Caribbean team in the IRB World Rankings at 48th, so the prospect of a Caribbean nation qualifying for RWC 2015 is slim, but Jones believes the new NACRA Championship format will make for some really competitive rugby.
“The absolute priority for all these unions is to win this Caribbean competition and I don’t think any of them will be looking beyond that at the moment. Trinidad v Jamaica, Trinidad v Barbados ... these are local derbies which have been going on since the 1950s and they have trophies for these encounters. They are long standing fixtures and Caribbean people like to travel to challenge others.
“These unions are very small – smaller than many clubs in bigger rugby nations – so some are only drawing their national sides from two or three teams. But these guys want to represent their country and work extremely hard. I watched a Jamaica training session last week and they were putting in a tremendous amount of effort."
So what of Jamaica, Mexico’s opponents in this weekend’s first RWC 2015 qualifier? According to Jones, they are traditionally the Caribbean’s strongest union but, sadly, are a prime example of the real challenges that the very small rugby nations face.
“Because the unions are all so small, if you have one outstanding individual player or administrator who can no longer do that role for whatever reason, it can be difficult to replace them – and you see big swings in achievement on the basis of that."
"However, this is a work in progress, and through the IRB and NACRA's commitment and the strong will and enthusiasm of the unions, Rugby will ultimately go from strength to strength in the region. We are already seeing the massively positive effects of Olympic Games inclusion."
Jones is very much looking forward to a watching a championship where he genuinely cannot say who will come out on top.
“Mexico should be favourites but you can’t be sure. Trinidad is the union that has the oldest and most established club system, and currently have 12 sides in their league competition, so they will normally be a strong challenger.
“Guyana will always be strong because they work hard at it and have been seven-a-side champions of the region for six years running. Cayman is also coming strongly, now that 10 years of working hard in their local communities is starting to bear fruit.
“Bermuda will also be near the top, thanks to a long-standing rugby tradition over there – they were the champions last year. At the level that these unions are playing at, it’s going to be a very competitive league.”
And finally, how are rugby fans in the region feeling about this weekend’s big event? Understandably, there is some friendly rivalry!
“It is an honour and a privilege that Mexico and Jamaica are the two sides who are going to get to open the RWC 2015 qualification process and play with Craig Joubert officiating, in front of the IRB Chairman and with the Webb Ellis Cup on show.
“It’s kind of surreal, because the next match – Mexico v Cayman – will see normal service resume despite the dual RWC qualification status, but we are proud to be kicking off the road to Rugby's showcase event."