Crunch time in the Caribbean
This weekend, the attention of Rugby World Cup 2015 once again turns back to the Caribbean, as Bermuda take on the Bahamas in a match that will determine who moves on to the next stage of the qualifying process.
In the NACRA Championship 2012, there are two different zones, with the winner of each meeting in the final later this month.
Guyana have already won their zone, leaving the pool featuring Bermuda, Bahamas and the Cayman Islands to be decided. And if Bermuda – currently 49th in the IRB World Rankings – win their match with the Bahamas on Saturday, they will move on to the Championship decider.
As the top-ranked team in the region, Bermuda are big favourites, so the pressure is on.
“This is a must-win for us,” says Keith Hodgkins, chairman of the Bermuda Rugby Football Union (BRFU).
“The least we would expect is to reach the final. The guys are also nervous because if we do reach the final, we will host it in Bermuda for the first time. In the past, we’ve always had to go away to one week-long event in one venue to try and win the Caribbean Championship. Now, the new format means we have a chance to host the Championship. That’s massive for us.”
However, despite the tag of favourites, a win this weekend is far from guaranteed. As Lawrence Bird – Bermuda coach for the last eight years – explains, the fact the match is being played in the Bahamas could make a big difference.
“We don’t have the same climate, which is why we come down a couple of days early so the guys can get used to the heat. They feel it in the first training session when we get here!”
And it sounds like there will be plenty of heat off the pitch as well. “Let’s just say they are very supportive of their team around here,” laughs Bird.
“It will be a hostile environment for our guys. We’ve travelled to most parts of the region, and Bahamas is the one that sticks out in my mind as the place they most get behind their side.
“They’re very physical and so are we, so it’s going to be a big battle – especially up front, where we’re very well organised. But we won the Caribbean Championship last year, and I would say we’ve got a stronger team this year, so we’re confident.”
Building for the future
Although the Bermudans are currently at the top end of Caribbean rugby, they have the same issues as many of the other countries in the region.
With a population of only 62,000, there are only 200 registered rugby players on the island. A large number of the national team are ex-pats from places such as South Africa and the UK who have qualified on residency grounds, and with only four rugby clubs they are, as Bird puts it, “making the best of what we can”.
But things are definitely changing and moving in the right direction, as the BRFU invest in their national game.
Lewis Moody is expected to attend a BRFU function at the end of June, and Fijian legend Waisale Serevi is running a two-day training camp for junior players later this month. Most significantly, up to now everyone in the BRFU has been a volunteer. But recently they hired their first full-time employee, youth development officer Patrick Callow.
“He used to work on the development programme at Ulster,” says Hodgkins, proudly. “He’s now over here, working very hard on schools rugby. In fact, in just four months we have set up both middle school and high school leagues. We’ve never had that before – we can’t believe the progress.”
Investing in youth
The BRFU believe this investment in youth will soon be seen in the make-up of the national side. At the moment, there is roughly a 50-50 split in the team between locals and ex-pats.
But Bird says there was one instance last year where he was able to take a squad to an away match that was 70 per cent Bermudan. “We don’t know when the ex-pat market might dry up, so we have to keep pushing that number.”
So if they can bring through a new generation, just how far can Bermudan rugby go? Right now, the focus is purely on winning the Caribbean Championship.
“We have to be realistic,” admitted Hodgkins. “Qualifying for a RWC is unlikely to be realistic for a country where the pool of rugby players is 200. But we do feel we can move Bermuda up the rankings. We are currently 49, and we would like to move up 10 levels in the next decade.
“The bigger goal is the Olympic Sevens. I believe Bermuda could put together a very good men’s side, and if we could get the women on the island to really get involved in rugby, there could be a point at which they could really challenge on that stage.”
One way or another, you can expect to hear a lot more about Bermudan rugby over the next few years.