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Development: Bringing rugby to Brazil

Rio 2016’s rugby 7s tournament may have been the sport’s first competition of note in Brazil, but Premiership Rugby is keen to be the catalyst in growing the game’s presence there. Matthew Campelli reports

by Matthew Campelli | Published in Sports Management Sep 2016 issue 126
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The Try Rugby programme is a joint venture between Premiership Rugby and the British Council
The Try Rugby programme is a joint venture between Premiership Rugby and the British Council

On 11 August 2016, Fiji thrashed Great Britain by 43 points to seven to become the first Olympic rugby 7s champions following the sport’s inclusion at the Rio Olympic Games. It was a significant moment, not only for Fiji but for hosts Brazil, which had never organised a rugby match of this magnitude before.

A team was entered by Brazil for its home Games but struggled, losing all three group matches to the eventual champions, the USA and geographical rival Argentina, finishing as the lowest ranked nation.

Making any sort of headway in the competition was always going to be a tough ask for a country which values football above anything else. However, while the Os Tupis (the nickname for the Brazilian rugby team) was playing for pride and little else, a handful of British coaches living in Rio and beyond are working to grow grassroots rugby and competing against football for the affection of local youngsters.

Dom Caton was one of those young British coaches who went out to Brazil almost four years ago as part of Try Rugby – Premiership Rugby’s joint venture with the British Council which is teaching Brazilian children the game of rugby and its core values.

Back then, Caton was representing Aviva Premiership club Exeter Chiefs as one of 12 coaches who were flown out to Sao Paulo to coach in 12 cities, particularly in SESI schools, where pupils struggle with learning, language or emotional challenges.

Now Caton heads up the programme as Premiership Rugby’s international development manager and the project has come a long way, expanding into five different locations: Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul and Rio de Janeiro.

The latter was the latest to be added to the initiative in March 2015, thanks to financial and pastoral backing from British car maker Jaguar Land Rover, which got on board with the project after opening a factory in the region.

A hero’s welcome
With 18,000 participants playing every week, and around 70,000 young people and adults taking part in coaching sessions, Try Rugby has doubled the rugby playing base in Brazil over that period. It’s an achievement Caton is proud of being a part of, and he talks with enthusiasm about his experience during the initiative’s embryonic stages.

“It was amazing going into these schools,” he tells Sports Management. ”A lot of the kids hadn’t seen a foreigner and some of the guys had celebrity-status welcomes. They had bands, they had flares going off, they had assemblies with 1,000 children singing songs and their national anthem.”

Over his three year stint in Brazil he lived in Sao Paulo and Rio, helping the schools implement rugby as part of their curriculum, delivering rugby sessions and educating teachers and volunteers so they could carry on the work once the coaches left.

While the SESI schools were at the centre of the scheme, Caton reveals that the programme varies from state to state depending on the needs of certain communities. For example, finding traction in Sao Paulo was slightly easier because it had a number of clubs in Brazil’s elite rugby league and it borders rugby-playing Argentina. Rio, in contrast, is more football dominated and its mountainous landscape made it difficult to find flat land to play on.

Getting them motivated
Finding good facilities to play rugby in general is a challenge, he adds, but if coaches introduce non-contact rugby they could play on concrete basketball courts or the beach – anywhere to keep kids playing a sport that wasn’t familiar to them.

“The hardest thing was introducing them to rugby,” Caton admits. “There was a real hunger and desire to play football and it’s difficult to try and motivate someone to want to play something they don’t know anything about, or that they aren’t very good at.”

Caton says the coaches make a point of making sessions fun, and have teamed up with stakeholders in the surrounding community like universities to help with the sessions and launch events, and festivals to keep the momentum going. The project has also been backed by the Federation of Brazilian Rugby – the sport’s national governing body – which sees this as a way of fostering the next generation of talent.

“If they don’t enjoy it, they’re not going to carry on,” he says. “It’s all about having a laugh and making sure they want to come back to take part in the next training session. Then the children realise they’re quite good and want to make something of it.

“With the level of competition out there it’s hard to become a professional footballer, but if kids can become good at rugby they might have a slightly less competitive route to reaching the top.”

One of the children who came through the programme has made the under-19 squad for Brazil, but Caton emphasises the need for iconic role models in rugby – like Neymar in football – to inspire and create a “goal or aspiration”.

Social development
Giving children something to aspire to is crucial in a nation like Brazil, particularly in deprived areas such as the favelas in Rio. SESI’s Try Rugby programme in the city is all about using the sport for social change “using the core values of rugby – discipline, respect, teamwork and enjoyment”.

“These are transferable skills, and we have had some fantastic outcomes here and hopefully changed a lot of people’s lives who live here,” Caton says.

Jaguar Land Rover’s backing for the Rio project came following the move to build its Resende factory in the city and is part of the firm’s corporate social responsibility programme which uses rugby to engage with the local community.

“The employees at the factory have formed a rugby team and take part in regular coaching sessions with one of our coaches,” Caton explains. “They also deliver support to our coaches in the programmes they do – in terms of funding and day-to-day operations.”

There are now eight coaches in five states, with each working with 15-20 volunteers and coaches with a view to growing beyond its current reach. Caton explains that the aim is to expand the current network and get more coaches in to coach more children, as well as upskilling existing coaches to make sure participants get the best possible experience.

A similar model was launched in neighbouring Argentina two years ago, based on Premiership Rugby’s Hitz programme which uses rugby to counter crime, unemployment and general disillusionment.

Jaguar Land Rover is also involved in that project, which helps youths with behavioural problems with employability and social skills. Caton hopes both projects are the beginning of something bigger.

“We have plans to expand this further to many more countries around the world,” he reveals. “It’s about sharing best practice and it may even have a knock-on effect in promoting Premiership Rugby within the countries that benefit.”

So, could we eventually see one of those Brazilian children play for the likes of Wasps and Saracens in the UK to complete the virtuous circle?

“That is not our primary objective, but it would be fantastic to have some Brazilians in the Premiership. It’s a country of more than 200m people, and as you can see they’ve gone from strength to strength.”

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