Fri, Jun 26, 2015 - Page 19 News List

Rugby union looks to gain ground in Rio de Janeiro

Reuters, RIO DE JANEIRO

Youngsters play rugby on a field on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Wednesday.

Photo: AFP

Claudio Souza was not sure what to do the first time a rugby ball was put in his hands in the Rio de Janeiro favela where he lives, a sign of the challenges the sport faces as it tries to grow in soccer-obsessed Brazil.

“It was strange. I was used to a football and picking up this ball that was oval was weird,” Souza, 15, said at his home in Morro do Castro.

“I started to kick it, but then the coaches explained the rules,” he added, holding a rugby trophy given to him by the British and Brazilian charity UmRio, which coaches rugby to promote leadership and teamwork among children in Rio’s slums.

Brazil, as Olympic hosts, have an automatic place in the Rugby Sevens competition, which enters the Games for the first time in Rio next year.

The largely amateur team is not among the favorites to take a medal, but they have seen participation as an opportunity to raise awareness of the sport with the help of local and international federations and charities like UmRio.

“Rugby was completely anonymous in Brazil, but now with the Olympics, people are interested... It’s a magical moment for us, something we never expected to see,” Brazilian rugby Sevens captain Fernando Portugal said.

As part of the drive, the local and international federations opened a rugby pitch on Rio’s Copacabana beach on Wednesday. The pitch will remain on the famous sand until the Olympics in August next year and is free to the public.

“I think it is very important for us to open up new spaces for rugby,” World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset said at the event, adding that Brazil was a key focus.

Rugby is now one of the fastest-growing sports in Brazil, with more than 46,000 children playing for the first time in the past two years, according to World Rugby.

The federation hopes to expand its “Get Into Rugby” campaign to reach 200,000 children through schools and social projects in the coming years.

However, Olympic success on the pitch would be the biggest advertisement.

“Brazilians don’t like to lose. We’ve spent a long time outside the international setup and there are teams much better prepared than we are... But we promise we’ll be competitive,” Portugal said.

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