Bermuda relish their World Cup journey
By Ian Gilbert
The amateurs of Bermuda’s national team can have few rivals when it comes to dedication.
An away match is no mere hop on a charter flight; the team flew 22 hours in three stages – a trip of almost 4,000 miles, via Miami and either Panama City or Sao Paulo – for Saturday’s Rugby World Cup 2015 qualifier with Paraguay.
For Bermuda, the trip to Asunción is something of a journey into the unknown, admits head coach Lawrence Bird. “We know very little about them. We've not had a chance to see many of their games. We haven't seen any videos.”
What Bird does know is that the South Americans have been barely tested so far, scoring almost 200 points in three matches on their way to taking the South American B Championship title earlier this month.
Given Paraguay’s proximity to Argentina and that country’s influence on rugby in the region, a decent pack seems likely, but Bird is confident in his own charges’ appetite for the encounter.
“We'll take it to them,” he says. “We'd expect them to be strong up front, but we're pretty strong up front, too.”
Moody's expert advice
After all, Bermuda have had the benefit of some expert advice already this year – former England captain and World Cup winner Lewis Moody helping out with some training before their match against Guyana, having been invited to the islands by an old friend.
“We put him through his paces as well,” says Bird. “He joined in, did some drills and touch. At that stage it was good to have him - a real tonic for the lads. He helped us out technically, helped us with a few points here and there.”
Duly inspired, Bermuda beat Guyana 18-0 to secure the NACRA (North American Caribbean Rugby Association) title in June and set up the clash with Paraguay.
While the game in Bermuda has traditionally been the preserve of expats, the national side is beginning to show the benefits of a developing junior structure, with native Bermudians in their late teens coming into the national set-up.
“The mix of the national side is about 50-50 - sometimes 60-40,” says Bird, originally from Nottingham, England, but a long-time resident whose work took him to Bermuda. “It's no longer an expat sport.”
There are rugby programmes for minis and in schools, Sunday junior rugby and within five years or so Bird expects the percentage of native Bermudians in the national side to rise to about three-quarters.
“Cricket and football always will be most popular sports but rugby is growing, and it's for kids of all different shapes and sizes as they grow,” he says.
For now, the immediate challenge is to get past the obstacle of Paraguay, who sit 10 places higher in the IRB World Rankings at 39.
Paraguay host the match thanks to their higher world ranking and while conditions are likely to be drier than the humidity Bermuda are used to, Bird is unfazed by ceding home advantage.
“We played in Mexico City last year [more than 7,000 feet above sea level] so we’re not unduly bothered,” he says.
Bird is keen to ensure his players’ excitement at playing in a RWC qualifier translates to achievement.
“They are very, very keen, very happy to have got this far; the challenge is to keep them motivated,” he says. “We don’t want them thinking this is a prize in itself – the prize is getting to the next stage.”
That next stage is a shot at Brazil – ranked 33 in the world – on 27 October and a step closer to the dream of competing at England 2015.