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Rugby in Africa: Much more than the Springboks

Jonathan Harding | Ali Farhat | Sophie Serbini
June 28, 2023

Rugby union in Africa is often only associated with South Africa, but there is much more to rugby on the continent than just the Springboks.

A player makes a tackle in a Kenya Cup rugby match
Rugby in Africa is making huge strides, but still lacks funding from the the sport's governing bodyImage: IMAGO/Chris Omollo

This September, South Africa will look to defend the men's Rugby World Cup title in France. Three World Cup triumphs, including the pivotal victory on home soil in 1995 following the end of Apartheid and as rugby was becoming professional, have cemented their place in the sport's history.

But the Springboks' success has seen them separate from the rest of the continent. As rugby union struggles to keep pace with the ever costlier landscape of global, professional sport, its future in Africa faces a defining four years.

In March 2023, Ghana's Herbert Mensah was elected as the first anglophone president of Rugby Africa. Mensah studied in the UK in the 1980s and has an entrepreneurial background in the telecommunications industry.

The charismatic speaker's business acumen and strong local ties have helped him take Ghanaian sport to another level in recent years. In short, he is the leader many believe can take Rugby Africa to the next level.

"I now want to do business with France, the EU, but I want to do business for Africa first," Mensah tells DW. "Such as sitting down with Mark Alexander, President of South African rugby, and saying, 'how do we now make things work?' People need to understand that you may have looked at us like this in the past, but not going in to the future."

Mensah has not been in the job long but he is already seeing results from the countries that have bought into his plan. The 63-year-old is tidying up governance issues in Cameroon and pushing for more government support for rugby in schools, regional tournaments and infrastructure in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Morocco.

"You can't approach your problems by telling people, 'Oh, it's because I'm in Africa or because I'm African I'm doing it this way,'" Mensah says. "There's not a 'this way or that way;' there's a global way. And we need to set that global standard."

Hosts of the 2023 football Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) Ivory Coast have already agreed to make their football stadiums available for rugby. In Accra, Ghana, a dedicated rugby stadium is already under construction and the Kenyan government has already promised and allocated a piece of land for the building of a stadium. Mensah is pushing to get Africa to see sport as big business and he has already garnered the support of many rugby leaders across the continent.

"He's a visionary," Botswana Rugby Union President Sean Irish tells DW. "He has the passion and ability to get into high areas and drive the sport forward."

Kenya's men's Sevens team has beaten the best on the world stage
Kenya's men's Sevens team has shown that Sevens can be the format that can push Africa forwardImage: IMAGO/Kevin Manning

World Rugby in Africa

African rugby has a seat at the table with World Rugby, but when it comes to funding it's another story.

While the sport's global governing body pays around $5m (€4.5m) to each European rugby nation to promote the sport, it pays just $2m to the entire continent of Africa. That equates to around $55,000 for each of the 36 rugby nations (South Africa is not included) in Africa. The message is clear.

"We will fight for our rights," Mensah says. "We will tell you that the high performance financial scheme for rewarding countries does not work in favor of Africa. I will have those fights with World Rugby all day long. We will look for greater amounts of equity."

Botswana is just one of the countries that would benefit from a proper slice of the cake, but President Irish isn't optimistic.

"World Rugby gives us $43,000 a year but what they expect me to do costs $70,000," he tells DW. "World Rugby is not going to give Africa more money. They don't understand Africa or the potential within Africa."

Despite the lack of funding, Botswana had made huge gains pre-pandemic, training nearly 100 school teachers a year in rugby coaching and expanding the number of schools playing the sport. The pandemic ended all sport in the country for two years, and its return has been slow and contested.

It's a similar story in Kenya. As recently as 2009, the Kenyan Sevens team (which plays a shorter-sided version of the game with seven players per team rather than 15) beat rugby giants New Zealand. Now, they're fighting just to get back into the World Series.

Chairman of Kenya Rugby Sasha Mutai, who was in tears that day in 2009, is working on plans to establish a professional league made up of six teams and backed by private owners.

"You have to be ambitious because the talent is there," Mutai tells DW. "It's like we are in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] and you throw a rock and you can get diamonds or cobalt."

Do anglophone countries have an advantage?

To galvanize that talent, Mensah and all those involved will have to win on many fronts, including managing the francophone and anglophone cultures of Africa. Rolande Boro, President of Burkina Faso's Rugby Union, believes French-speaking countries in Africa have it harder.

"It's a serious problem; French-speaking countries have trouble getting off the ground," she tells DW, highlighting the impact that South African rugby has had on its fellow anglophone neighbors Namibia, World Cup regulars ranked 21 in the world, and Zimbabwe. "There's clearly been an impact."

Boro points out that the rugby heritage between the two cultures is not the same, citing the example of rugby being a part of the Commonwealth Games but not included in The Jeux de la Francophonie, the French equivalent.

Furthermore, on a more practical level, Boro points to how emerging rugby nations such as Burkina Faso have successfully focused on the "Sevens" format, rather than the full-scale 15-a-side game, where technical aspects such as scrums or line-outs are harder to develop.

Former French international Serge Betsen, who was born in Cameroon, agrees that extensive rule changes haven't helped, but believes the difference between the two cultures is less pronounced.

"I don't think there is a difference between Anglophone and Francophone countries [in Africa] in terms of rugby," Betsen tells DW.

"Rugby is everywhere in the world but the problem is that it is not developed enough to have a certain visibility. Rugby has to work to give more resources to the sport, to make it accessible to everyone."

Paradise found?

Rugby Africa chief Herbert Mensa wants to use the continent's natural attractions to help grow the game, using spectacular landscapes and scenery as backdrops to a "Sevens" circuit.

"As Africans, we've moved beyond arid lands, desert starvation and coups," he says. "What if, for example, we had a Sevens circuit which took in Mauritius, Kenyan safari, Kampala, the Victoria Falls, somewhere in Cape Town. The camera would zoom in on paradise."

Mensah's idea sounds like a sports investor's dream, but it also has practical benefits too. Not only is Sevens a less complicated game; as an Olympic sport, it's funded through different channels.

"Rugby Sevens is the future of the sport, because it demands less investment," Betsen says. "You only need ten people to have a team … It is a revolution, and African countries should embrace the Olympic dynamic of the sport. Rugby Sevens could be a good window for the development of the sport in Africa."

Perhaps Mensah's vision is too grand, South African rugby too disconnected, World Rugby's input too low, but maybe all of that doesn't matter.

"Because of its values, rugby is the best sport in the world," insists Betsen, who has set up rugby charities in Cameroon and Mali. "It gathers communities, look at what Nelson Mandela did in South Africa."

After years of effort, Rugby Africa is ready to push for the try line. Now it's time to find out whether they can get the ball down.

Edited by: Matt Pearson

Uganda's rugby kids