Connor Dickins explores the rich history of Malagasy rugby...
Madagascar may not be the first country many think of when it comes to rugby. However, the East African island has one of the most vibrant rugby cultures on the planet. The national team consistently attracts 40,000 fans to the Kianja Barea Mahamasina stadium, with club games hitting average attendances of 8,000. According to World Rugby, the country has over 40,000 registered players, giving them the 16th largest player base in the world.
The emergence of the sport in Madagascar is quite different to other countries. In many rugby nations, the game was introduced by colonial rule, and mostly played by the upper-classes of society. Colonial rule also brought the sport to Madagascar, with French railway workers playing the sport in the 1890s. But in Madagascar, rugby was largely the sport of the poorer classes. It especially took hold in what is now the Analamanga region, where combat sports were especially popular (such as French boxing and bull-fighting). Rugby enthusiast Patricia Rajariarison summed it up to the BBC in 2005: "Rugby is mostly popular in poor areas because it's a contact sport. The elite didn't want to have that rough contact against each other. The people who played rugby were the descendants of slaves". In this regard, Madagascan rugby contradicts the stereotype of rugby being a rich gentleman's game.
A legendary achievement
Rugby's popularity amplified in 2005. A primary reason was the national team reaching the Africa Cup final. It's a remarkable achievement given the challenges the country faces, being one of the poorest in the world. Some accounts describe the capital's top teams lacking basic training facilities. Jean-Luc Barthes, a former Africa Rugby Services Manager for World Rugby, witnessed this upon a visit to Madagascar: "I visited the training facilities of the two top teams in the Antananarivo league: one trains on a dirt track, a disused construction site in the middle of a housing estate... the other, on a field covered by 20 cm of water all the time".
Madagascar eventually lost the final to Morocco, a team which contained multiple players from France's professional leagues. Despite the loss, this landmark achievement garnered widespread attention in the country. The sport grew beyond the urban slums to sprout numerous clubs across the country. The sport even became engrained in the school curriculum.