"It's a nation's dream to compete at a RWC"
Today saw the final two games of the Division III schedule in the Asian 5 Nations, as India faced Guam in the final, while Pakistan took on Indonesia in the third/fourth play-off.
The matches marked another step towards qualification for Rugby World Cup 2015. Malaysia and Thailand contest the Division II final tomorrow with the winners of each division facing off for promotion to Division I for 2013 and thus staying in the race for a place in England.
However, it also saw two of the world’s most densely populated countries – and two fierce rivals – take to the international rugby field again. The size of their populations means that Pakistan and India have enormous potential playing and fan bases. So how close is rugby to really taking off in these nations?
According to former Ireland player and current Pakistan head coach Justin Fitzpatrick, speaking before their loss to Indonesia, things are moving in the right direction.
“Both nations have a rich sporting history and pedigree, and both compete successfully in a number of different sports on the international stage," said Fitzpatrick.
"From what I observed of the Pakistanis, they love their sport, and it’s a big country with a big population, made up of a number of diverse sizes and shapes – which should make them ideally suited to rugby!
"I think with the right nurturing, it has a really positive future.”
Enthusiasm for Rugby
Just the fact that Justin is currently coaching Pakistan shows how committed the IRB is to making that future as bright as possible.
A prop who played in 26 tests for Ireland between 1998 and 2003 – including four appearances at RWC 1999 – he was invited by the IRB to take a break from coaching in Northern Ireland to take charge of Pakistan for this Asian 5 Nations tournament.
“It has been a wonderful experience,” added Justin.
“I’ve been very, very impressed with what I have seen and observed in terms of how the game is being developed. The enthusiasm and appetite for rugby football within Pakistan, as well as the talent out there – they are very much a sporting people – means there is potential for great growth.”
Justin’s input has clearly been positive. The classic rivalry with their neighbours India was again on display in the semi-finals earlier this week. And although Pakistan were to lose 34-5, they scored their first ever try against India and had reason to be encouraged.
“We were very disappointed to lose, but all credit to India.
"They’re a very experienced team who have been playing together for a long time. We had eight new caps starting and off the bench, so it’s a new side that we’re putting together.”
And in Pakistan’s defence, they are slowly building something. India has the longer – or at least more continued – history of rugby, with a club competition established at the beginning of the twentieth century. As Justin puts it, rugby is “rediscovering itself” in Pakistan.
“The PRU (Pakistan Rugby Union) is doing great work in promoting and growing the game. They’ve taken great strides forward with the schools program and the university program, and the sport is growing in the armed forces as well.
"Against India, some of the new caps we had came from the army, who are really buying into rugby, and there were a couple of guys from the police force too. So it’s growing in new and different areas, plus there are more traditional clubs too, who have always provided players for the national team.”
It may not happen in time for RWC 2015 – or even RWC 2019, the first in Asia – but Justin is confident these improvements mean India and Pakistan are both on track to bring World Cup rugby to the sub-continent.
“Having more coaches trained, having more referees trained and growing the game at school and university level will grow the base and the numbers playing the game. That will give greater competition domestically, which will have a knock on effect internationally.
“So although I don’t think we will see Pakistan at a RWC soon, it is the dream of any nation to compete at a World Cup, and that’s an ambition for both India and Pakistan. With the right structures in place, I’m sure they both have the capacity to make those dreams come true.”
To get the latest Rugby World Cup 2015 news, go to www.rugbyworldcup.com/register/index.html