After the excitement of the Womens’ World Cup and Canada’s outstanding effort, it has been a quiet week and not much to report. However after watching the first two rounds of the Rugby Championship, it left me with food for thought on how we might find a role model for Canada’s own development of its national side.
So let me throw this out there if Rugby Canada might read this. On watching Argentina’s performance in the Rugby Championship I would dare to suggest that this is a country that Canada could use as a role model in how to develop the national team into a top quality side capable of holding their own against the world’s best.
You may be surprised at this but let’s look at the similarities between the game in Argentina and Canada of which there are many.
In both countries rugby is a minority sport, which cannot hope to compete with the primary national sporting passions – in Argentina it is football and in Canada it is hockey. However, both countries are hugely patriotic and any sporting spectacle on the international stage which allows a Canadian or Argentinian jersey to be shown to the world automatically generates fierce and passionate interest across the country. In the case of rugby this is arguably stronger in Argentina but this is more due to the growing successes of the national team. Recall the giant screens in Buenos Aires that aired the Pumas semi-final match in the 2007 World Cup which saw them finish third in the tournament, and the resulting celebrations throughout the country on Argentina’s victory in the bronze medal match. I for one believe that if Canada ever reached a similar position at the World Cup the same interest and enthusiasm would be seen. Let’s face it, we are a nation of big people who love fast contact sports – we were custom built for rugby. There is no doubt that when played well at the International level rugby is a sport well suited to igniting national passions and huge interest. It is worth noting that the third most watched sporting event on television throughout the world, after the Olympics and the Football World Cup, is the Rugby World Cup – and the 2015 Championship looks set to continue this trend.
In both Argentina and Canada there is a very small domestic playing base and competition structure, centred on one or two key geographic areas. In Argentina it is the winelands and Buenos Aires whereas in Canada, British Columbia is undoubtedly the heartland of the sport. In Canada, the sport is an amateur code, which for the most part is also true in Argentina at the domestic level. The essential difference is that the Argentinian union has been highly effective in getting its players exposure to European top level clubs and helping them secure lucrative professional contracts overseas. In the last ten years all the top European professional clubs have at least two or three Argentinian players in their squads, often in their starting XVs on any match day. In the case of French rugby these percentages are even higher. The benefit of this regular exposure to top level rugby week in week out throughout the European season has been instrumental in contributing to Argentina’s continuous improvements as a national side. Argentina’s inclusion since 2012 in the Rugby Championship, the Southern Hemisphere’s premier annual international tournament has been a further boost to developing a national side that can compete with the world’s best.
The Argentinian Rugby Union has recognised that in order to capture the imagination of the public at home and generate a greater interest in the sport, developing a national squad that can gain international recognition and success is key. Although, national unions should always strive to develop the game domestically, you still need an attractive product and something that players can aspire to. As Argentina’s stature at the international level continues to increase so too will interest by professional European clubs in Argentinian players. This in turn will expand the domestic playing base and number of players available for local and club teams in Argentina as these players are attracted to the game and the possibility of gaining valuable and lucrative experience in Europe and the ultimate prize of representing Argentina at the international level.
Canada could do the same, as well as learning from Argentina’s experience and approach to the development of their national team. To further this process if time and funding permitted a regular annual international fixture between Argentina and Canada could be held. Although Canada participates in the annual Pacific Rim Competition the countries it plays against in this tournament are not quite of the same calibre as Argentina.
The fact that Argentina has managed to become such a success in international rugby is no small feat given its relative geographic isolation from the rest of the rugby world, its small domestic playing base and national obsession almost to the point of religious devotion with football. Canada is in a very similar position and could learn a great deal from the Argentinian experience, and ultimately replicate its success. It will take time and Argentina’s success has been 20 years in the making but the rewards and results are there for all of us to see. So from the Pampas to the Prairies let’s get to know our rugby that much better!