Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ruck 'n' Rio

As the sun sets on the FIFA World Cup and over the golden sands of Rio, another sport continues to undergo a new dawn in Brazil.
Brazil and football are synonymous. Some of the greatest players to ever hoof the round ball have worn the gold shirt, from legends Pele and Zico to modern purveyors of the game like Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos. Now those great names seem a million miles away from the less inspiring Fred, Bernard and Jo.
While football is still undoubtedly king, rugby is very much on the rise and is the nation's quickest growing team sport (whilst Mixed Martial Arts is the only individual pursuit more popular). The evidence of rugby's rise is clear in the former capital. Among the proverbial shadows of the Maracana and the Great Redeemer, on the usually football dominated Copacabana beach, rugby is increasingly popular.
The sport certainly isn't anything new in Brazil; in fact the game hit the shore the same time as football in the late 19th Century. Whilst football flourished in the favelas and among the rich, rugby lurked in the shadows; ever present, but its growth stunted.
However, the sport is now becoming ever popular. Official competitors are now in five figures and more play in unofficial leagues, set up by players with nowhere else to go. With the football World Cup now passed, all eyes turn to the Olympics that come to Rio de Janeiro in 2016. With them comes rugby, returning to the games for the first time in almost a century; this time in sevens format.
This year the IRB confirmed that Brazil would automatically qualify as hosts of the Olympics with Bernard Lapasset stating that the decision was made because "good for rugby, good for Brazil and good for the Games." Lapasset, the IRB chairman added, "Rugby in Brazil is experiencing rapid growth and inclusion will generate further impetus and excitement." With that comes expectation and Brazil don't want to disappoint.
Already Brazil are doing all they can to ensure they go into the games as strong and prepared as possible, they won't need to do it on their own though. In 2013 the IRB gave just shy of a quarter of million to boost the game. They also held coaching sessions with 250 children from the deprived Morro do Cantagalo community whilst 7s legends Waisale Serevi and Ben Gollings held sessions on Copacabana.
Perhaps the biggest boost to the game in Brazil has come from ‘Try Rugby Brazil.’ A joint venture between Premiership Rugby and the British, ‘Try Rugby Brazil’ has seen over 14,000 participants playing every week in Sao Paulo state alone.  The programme now stretches over 24 cities in São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Santa Catarina, 350  teachers and volunteers are able to not only teach tag rugby, but also referee games; both vital skills to ensure the longevity and sustainability of rugby in Brazil, long after the programme has run its course.

The programme is not just about bringing rugby to Brazil, but bringing hope to the poor and vulnerable in Brazil. It offers social inclusion to those often cast aside by society, a chance to shine light into the areas not even the tropical sun can penetrate.

Some areas have already seen the effect rugby's community spirit can have. The favela of Cantagalo overhangs the beach neighbourhood of Ipanema, the most expensive real estate in the whole of South America. The two had become detached; strangers and neighbours at the same time. In order to bring them closer together the government built a giant elevator making access easier. Now, with the help of Rio Rugby Club the rich kids of Ipanema run alongside the 'morador da comunidade' of the favelas, or 'morros,' united in the passion of sport. 
These programmes won’t bring through players in time for the showpiece in 2016 and, as it stands, Brazil is lacking a big name to attract the crowds. They have no Dan Carter or Bryan Habana to put backsides on seats and hopefully on the edge of them. The Brazilian government has called for players to come forward to bolster their squad and one man is willing to answer the call.
Ade Gardner has achieved just about everything in the 13 man code. A Super League, Challenge Cup and World Club Challenge winner; Gardner has represented England and Great Britain whilst clocking up almost 300 appearances for St Helens where he has been a prolific try scorer.

Injury has limited Gardner’s opportunities at Knowsley Road in recent seasons, cruelly struck down in what should be the golden years of his career. Now a loan deal with Hull KR has seen the winger get his boots back on and influence things on the pitch, but Gardiner is ready to trade League for Union and a chance to represent his mother’s home country on the biggest sporting stage of all.

Gardner will be 33 when the Olympics roll into Rio, but he says he feels better for his enforced layoff and is certain he has enough left in the tank. "I'm really enjoying my rugby again. Hopefully I can get back to some pretty decent form now and I've got a couple of years left in me." 

The women's game has already started to take off in Brazil and they found themselves finish a respectable ninth in the final Sevens World Series Standings. The teams performance was enhanced by their loyal fans and Kiwi captain Huriana Manuel dubbed them the "best fans in the world" after the Brazil leg of the series in São Paulo in March.
The fans found something to cheer in the form of Edna Santini. The smallest player on the pitch, Santini earned the nickname 'Pocket Rocket' with her incredible pace whilst her ability to unlock opposition defences got the home crowd on their feet time and time again. The men's team may lack a box office player with real star quality, but the women could have found theirs in Santini.
Hopefully, fans of both Brazil's men's and women's sevens will have something to cheer in 2016.
Vamos Brazil!
Goldfinger - Rio