From The Vaults

21 February 2022
Madagascar - The rugby mad country you need to hear about, by Connor Dickins

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.

Humble Beginnings

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.

A passionate fanbase

Jean-Luc Barthes toured Madascar as a player. He reminisced about the Malagasy crowd fondly: "The public went positively wild and the entire atmosphere reminded me of the gladiatorial battles in the circuses of ancient Rome... chanting slogans in support of their team. I feared the worst as the referee blew the whistle to end an entertaining match. But nothing unpleasant happened. Amazingly, the public calmed down instantly and joined the players on the field chatting amicably, shaking hands, exchanging congratulations and clapping the two teams to the dressing rooms".

The fandom is also evident outside of the stadium. Fans who can't afford tickets have supported the team by hiking up to the Queen's Palace cliff, which looks down upon the national stadium. Rugby is also a common topic for the general public, as was noted by former Racing 92 under-20 player, Frédéric Dumant: "The first time I went to Madagascar four years ago, everybody knew about rugby and wanted to talk to me about it, whether I was at the airport, in a taxi ... everywhere".

Embracing Madagascan identity

The national team portrays many facets of Madagascan culture. An especially eye-catching example is their pre-match war dance, which similar to the haka, is performed with the opposition watching on. The team's nickname, the Makis, pays tribute to the lemur, one of the many endemic species to Madagascar.

Through their iconic run to the 2005 Africa Cup final, coach Berthin Rafalimanana even used the dark times of the country's history as motivation: "I tell them war stories, especially from the colonial period under the French. There are anecdotes from the liberation struggle which I can use to charge up their aggression to defend their country. Any foreign team that faces us become like soldiers attacking Madagascar".

Their greatest triumph

The 2012 triumph over Namibia is arguably the Makis' greatest victory. And what a game it was. The fixture not only determined the winner of the 1b Africa Cup, but it also was part of qualification for the 2015 World Cup. Fans queued up as early as 6am to get a spot at Madagascar's Kianja Barea Mahamasina stadium.

The Makis are known for a willingness to offload and exceptional pace. Through their typically entertaining brand of rugby, the underdog Makis raced to a 19-0 lead. They finished the first half 29-14 ahead. Namibia's experience and size made an impact in the second half, leading 43-29 with just 10 minutes to play. Remarkably, after 80 minutes, the score-line read 43-43. In the dying minutes of extra-time, Madagascar was behind, but pulled off some magic rugby (including a Joe Rokocoko style pass between the legs) to clinch the winning try. 57-54 was the final score. The title was theirs.

Namibia would eventually head to the World Cup as Africa's qualifier, as they have done for all World Cups since 1995. But Namibia's dominance of the continent highlights how special this upset was. At the time, Namibia were 35 places above Madagascar in the world rankings. It's one of the most underrated upsets in rugby's history. It contained the Malagasy war dance, alongside a 40,000 strong crowd in the capital. It was the embodiment of why Madagascan rugby is so special.

Special Credit:

About the Author - Connor Dickins is a rugby union writer for LWOS Rugby. As well as covering the Gallagher Premiership and International Rugby, Connor also has a particular interest in developing rugby nations. He continues to play rugby socially for West London RFC.