Wed, Oct 17, 2007 - Page 19 News List

FEATURE: Rugby World Cup helps sport take root in Ethiopia

AFP , ADDIS ABABA

In Ethiopia, athletes are more often associated with the graceful, wiry figures of the nation's long-distance running legends than with the heavyweights of international rugby.

But the enthusiasm generated by the rugby World Cup in France looks set to allow the sport to take root in unlikely places, even in the only African country never colonized by Britain, France or any other European power.

Out of the 35 players who gather each week in Addis Ababa, coach Fabrice Houpeaux's squad boasts plenty of pacey wingers but suffers from an obvious dearth of beefy forwards and muscular centers.

"It's a very demanding sport, it needs a lot of time spent in the gym to improve stature," admits Chris Gabresi, a teenager from the Ethiopian capital who likes to play on the wing. "For us Ethiopians, the idea of playing professional rugby at the moment is just out of the question."

The sport is starting from scratch in Ethiopia. It has yet to have its own pitch with posts and is up against the phenomenal popularity of the English and other European soccer leagues.

"The only way to improve the status of rugby in the country is to make children play and have sufficient instructors," said Houpeaux, who coaches Ethiopia's only club alongside a New Zealander and another Frenchman.

Blanket coverage by the South African satellite network received in Ethiopia has spurred unprecedented interest for rugby in the Horn of Africa nation.

As a growing number of spectators are gathering in the stands to watch training sessions, newcomers have shown interest in joining the club and the players expect their ranks to swell as the World Cup reaches its climax.

"The whole atmosphere is friendly and encouraging, we are always dedicated when we arrive for our training sessions," 16-year-old Selam Nadew said.

"We will probably have more players next time but they have to be committed as well," Chris Gabresi added.

Balls, kits and other equipment have been provided by France as part of an initiative called Rendez-Vous 2007 launched in the run-up to the World Cup which also sent two Ethiopians players to France to watch the games.

The coaching staff hopes the World Cup and a bit of help from major rugby nations will take the sport to a new level.

"Setting up a federation is another major step because a body is needed to overlook from the top," Houpeaux said.

"It's just a start," he said, while keeping an eye on the TV screen showing the latest World Cup game. "I've been here for two years and our students have shown a lot of improvement."

Houpeaux and his colleagues are already busy inviting teams from more established rugby nations such as Kenya and Dubai and predicts a federation would bring Ethiopia into the oval world.

"With all this achieved, there is no reason not to see Ethiopia competing in regional tournaments in just a decade," he said.

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