Sun, Aug 18, 2019 - Page 11 News List

War-hardened Afghans discover new sport: rugby

AFP, KABUL

Young rugby players practice in Kabul on June 13.

Photo: AFP

Thirty or so teenagers kick up dust as they sprint around a field in Kabul, focused intensely as they chase an oval ball in the sweltering heat. They are sweating profusely, but that has not dampened their enthusiasm for their newfound sport: rugby.

Essentially unheard of before the arrival of international forces, the sport has slowly begun to pick up steam in Afghanistan, where soccer, cricket and bodybuilding are better known.

“I love the tackles and passes of rugby,” said 16-year-old Lutfullah Kazemi, a high-school student who had previously been a soccer fan.

He was drawn to the game largely because of its novelty, but stuck with it and now dreams of an international career.

In a nation that has been at war for four decades, tough-guy sports such as bodybuilding and taekwondo have already found a loyal following.

Thanks to the efforts over several years by diehard fans, awareness around rugby is growing.

Stephen Brooking, a Briton who advises the Afghan Rugby Federation, is convinced that Afghans have the characteristics to shine at the sport, notably physical conditioning.

For the moment, the focus is on rugby sevens, as it is the best way to build skills and is easier to understand than 15 a side.

“They have the skills, they have the fitness, they have the strength,” Brooking said. “You get some very big strong Afghans and I think they would be also good at 15s. Eventually, I am sure Afghanistan will produce a strong 15-a-side rugby team.”

However, conditions are less than ideal. Chunks of synthetic grass have been torn from the Kabul pitch, making tackling dangerous.

Only touch rugby, which is less physical, is allowed. Otherwise the players risk injury, said Abdul Habib, trainer of a team called “Qahramanan” — meaning “champions” in Dari.

Still, the sport is growing. Today, 18 teams have been formed in schools and universities around Kabul and six more in provinces outside the capital, federation spokesman Aref Wardak said.

Three youth and adult championships are supposed to be created within months, and a women’s team has even been started in Kabul with the hope of others coming soon.

Afghanistan is not yet a member of World Rugby, but has received support from Asia Rugby, which helps it train referees and coaches.

The national sevens side, made up of Afghan expatriates, participated in the Asian Games in Jakarta last year, narrowly missing out on the quarter-finals.

To build a future, the federation is focusing on young people, starting in the schools.

“We must first convince teachers there’s an interest in rugby and explain the values of this gentleman’s sport that is rooted in rules and a respect for the enemy. And the kids need to find it fun,” Wardak said.

Habib, who started coaching Qahramanan about four years ago, said it was a difficult sport to learn.

“It took me about two months to teach them the rules,” he said.

Wardak recalled his first contacts with college students.

“They would ask me where the goal was and why we had to pass the ball backward — and they thought a scrum was the start of a fight,” he said.

Brooking said that the thing players need the most in Kabul is pitches. Not easy to come by in a city experiencing a demographic boom.

A plot of land about 10,000m2 will soon be allocated for rugby practice, the federation said, although funds are still lacking to construct any facilities or put in a decent turf.

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