Afghans join ever-growing ‘Asian rugby family’
Afghanistan became the newest rugby playing country in the world this weekend as the International Rugby Board and top Asian officials rejoiced at the healthy state of the game globally.
Afghanistan, who signed on as the 28th member of the Asian Rugby Football Union last November, had their first taste of international rugby when they played a three-game sevens series against a United Arab Emirates development side on the sidelines of the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five clash between Hong Kong and the UAE in Dubai.
Although the war-torn country has just over 200 players, it will add to the 5.5 million men, women and children playing the game worldwide, figures proudly revealed by IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset at a meeting in Turkey last week.
There are 117 countries affiliated to the IRB - Afghanistan is not one of them yet.
'These are exciting times for rugby. We are experiencing unprecedented growth across all continents and growing in major markets such as China, Russia, Brazil, Mexico and the US,' Lapasset said.
One of the biggest growth regions has been Asia, which in the past decade has mushroomed from just 12 countries to 28.
An ambitious 10-year plan, set in place in 2009, has visions of not only increasing the player population but also growth in playing standards, having targeted two men's and two women's teams in the respective World Cups by 2019.
'There is no reason why Asia cannot develop into the next powerhouse of world rugby,' ARFU secretary general Ross Mitchell said. 'Asia has 60 per cent of the world's population and 80 per cent of the world's youth. This is where the future lies. 'If we can get 0.1 per cent of the population of China and India interested in rugby, this will equate to some 2.5 million people. Our strategic effort is to grow the game and with the World Cup coming to Japan in 2019 there now exists a tremendous opportunity to raise awareness even further and promote the game,' he said.
Asia has 12 per cent of the world's rugby playing population, but this has not translated into dominance on the playing field with Japan being the only Asian side to play at the World Cup. Mitchell said this was a key area the strategic plan would focus on in the next few years.
'At the high performance end Japan are moving up into the world's top 10. Our focus will be to see Japan reach the quarter-finals of the 2019 World Cup,' Mitchell said. 'Also we need to get Asia's number two and three teams moving up into the world's top-20 bracket and qualifying for the World Cup.'
Hong Kong are ranked number two in Asia, and 26th in the world.
Lapasset said the inclusion of sevens in the Olympics would herald another boom across the world - an example being rugby in China which has seen an upsurge in funding from the central government as well as provincial administrations, some of which have set up sevens squads.
'It [sevens rugby] is the key that has unlocked the door to participation in emerging and new rugby markets, thanks to national Olympic committee and government support, our development strategies and renewed commercial and broadcast interest. Rugby is now on the agenda in these countries, in schools and growth is being accelerated,' Lapasset said.
Afghanistan, meanwhile, narrowly lost the three-game series to UAE Shaheen, 2-1. After squaring the sevens series with a 24-0 victory - Afghanistan's first try in internationally sanctioned competition was scored by Haroon Zadran - they lost the decider 10-5.