Afghans scrum down as rugby takes tentative hold


Afghanistan may not be challenging the mighty All Blacks or Australia any time soon, but just getting a national rugby side together represents a huge stride for the sport in the war-weary country.
While the World Cup counts down to its exciting final stages in New Zealand, a ragtag seven-member Afghanistan team was taking part in a minor two-day tournament on dusty pitches in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
“We watched the top teams play in the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and the interest is increasing day by day,” said Afghan manager Omar Aziz. “But we know we have a very long way to go to compete at the regional level first.”
And so it proved, as the outclassed Afghans lost two and won one match in the Lahore tournament, which featured Pakistani club teams. The Afghans will play a series of exhibition games later on in their tour.
Captain Javed Rehmani, also a weightlifter who won the strong man competition in Afghanistan last year, said the groundbreaking trip over the border was a major step for his country.
“Pakistan has been playing rugby for more than 10 years now so they have better players and playing against them helps us learn more,” said the hulking Rehmani.
Rugby in Afghanistan is very much in its infancy. The Afghanistan Rugby Federation (ARF) was only launched in May this year, but Aziz is already eyeing affiliation with the Asian Rugby Football Union by next year.
The game was introduced to Afghans during British colonial rule of India, but never really took hold.
Sports were later severely hampered under the strict Islamist rule of the Taliban, whose overthrow in 2001 sparked an insurgency that rages to this day.
Despite the ongoing violence, sports have begun to gain prominence. Cricket, in particular, is enormously popular and the national side has enjoyed some low-level success. There is also an interest in football. Rugby has a lot to do to catch up, admitted Aziz, who is also general secretary of the ARF.
“Of course, rugby is gaining roots in Afghanistan and we have introduced the sport only a few months back and are in the process of forming a national team, so it will take time, but I am very hopeful,” he told AFP.
“Unfortunately, because of meagre facilities and ongoing war, rugby is not played very much.
“But we have to create a base and compete with sports like cockfights, dogfights, buzkashi (a national sport played on horseback when two teams try to get possession of a calf’s carcass), football and cricket, which are more popular.”
Aziz said Steve Brooking, a British expatriate working as a technical adviser to the ARF, has played a major part.
“Brooking is a great help for our players and he has helped us a lot in learning the skills of the game and once we tour countries like India and Japan we will get more mature as a team,” said Aziz.