Brazil learning to love oval ball
10 October 2013, 13:36
Rio De Janeiro - For more than 200 million Brazilians, what matters above all else is seeing their country secure a sixth global triumph at next year's World Cup.
But England rugby sevens ex-captain Ollie Phillips and Brazil captain Fernando Portugal brought a touch of the oval ball's charms to youngsters from one of Rio's poorest areas Wednesday.
Phillips, stopping off in Rio as he competes in the Clipper Round The World Race, joined Portugal and Zimbabwean-born coach Justin Thornycroft for a session coaching youngsters from Rio's Rocinha favela.
Rugby sevens will be on the menu at the Rio Games in three years' time making its Olympic debut -- the full-blown version of the sport appeared at the 1924 Paris Games.
And even if it is the round ball that dominates most Brazilians' sporting minds, Rio 2016 organisers have jumped at the chance to broaden interest in rugby.
"We have relatively few people playing rugby in Brazil, but the numbers are growing and the Olympics will give the sport a big boost in 2016," Portugal told AFP.
"Recent years have brought television coverage of the French Top 14, the European Cup, to Brazil and increased rugby's visibility, opening people's eyes to what it can offer.
"We have a ten-strong state championship and that is starting to draw in the crowds - with TV also fueling interest. The trouble is we don't have many grass pitches - they're mostly in use for soccer," laments Portugal, who spent two years playing in Italy.
Jonathan Mier is one player to benefit from the nascent interest as Brazil seeks to close the quality gap on traditional South American powerhouse Argentina.
"My grandfather used to play rugby and my father wanted me to play. I used to play basketball," said the strapping youngster from the northern state of Maranhao. "I came down to the beach one day in 2009 and gave it a try.
"I think the Olympics will really give the game a boost in Brazil - we have to seize the moment and not let things end after the Games."
Thornycroft, meanwhile, said he used to play as a child back in Zimbabwe -- he hails originally from the northern outpost of Centenary.
He rediscovered his passion coming to Brazil more than a decade ago.
"About eight years ago I was down playing touch rugby on the beach.
"I realised there were kids who wanted to play," said Thornycroft, adding the idea had mushroomed into a social project, dubbed Rugby Nossa Paixo' (rugby is our passion).
Thornycroft has helped to revitalise Rio Rugby FC, formed in the 1940s by English dock workers but now primarily Brazilian. The club has widened access and now boasts a women's team as well as a youth team and junior side.
Phillips says having Sevens at the Rio Games will be a major boost for the sport in Brazil.
"The Sevens format is so exciting and will suit Rio down to the ground," he told AFP.
Not every child attending Wednesday's session from a school in Deodoro, the northern district of Rio which will host the Olympic Sevens, was immediately convinced, however.
"I don't really get it. It's not my cup of tea -- I'll stick to soccer," ten-year-old Ruel said quietly as he looked on nonplussed at line-out and scrum techniques.
Even so, Brazil's Rugby Federation has enthusiastically taken up the challenge from International Rugby Board president Bernard Lapasset to take Sevens into new markets.
Lapasset said last year he hoped to see inroads into China and Russia and, according to Rio media, rugby is Brazil's second fastest growing sport, being played by upwards of 10,000 people.
The national side, Os Tupis (after a Brazilian indigenous tribe) have yet to make it to a World Cup -- and last year shipped 111 points to regional kings Argentina.
But the Brazilian Confederation, undeterred, has sent out a circular to clubs worldwide to see if it can garner any talent qualified to represent the nation.
Even if they may never become a force in the game, Mier says that rugby and the Olympics are about more than sport.
"It helps you in different aspects of your life, shows that you can't do everything by yourself and develops a philosophy of self-development and awareness," he asserted.