Crouch. Touch. Pause… Engage!
Saturday, 04 February 2012 00:00 BY MICHAEL ARCHER

Rugby flexed its muscles worldwide and in Nigeria in 2011

LOOKING back 2011 was a vintage year for Rugby. Four faces celebrated victories on massively different stages in vastly different ways around the planet.

Everywhere rugby was played it held its head up high. When Richie McCaw, the colossus of New Zealand, and captain of the fearsome All Blacks, was lifted high on the shoulders of his new World Champions the Rugby Gods had shone their dazzling lights on this great game and seen to it that justice was done. The courageous and wildly unpredictable French had done everything in the final but win the game. From the moment they unexpectedly faced down Piri Weepu’s awesome haka in a V formation they had dominated. They deserved to win the game (which they lost 7-8) but New Zealand deserved to win the William Webb Ellis Trophy and join South Africa and Australia as the only countries to win the IRB World championship twice.

In a smaller, but no less just way, when the Nigerian Police beat Zaria convincingly 29-5 in the final of the 2011 Lagos 7s in November they deserved to win the Cup. Having lost in the final of the Northern Sevens in Kaduna two weeks previously they had gone away and done their homework. In Onikan Stadium, they kicked away less possession and keeping the ball in hand let loose their two lethal finishers Yahaya and Abdul Malik. By the time the flying policemen carried Mike Taylor, their burly coach, on their shoulders and showered him with champagne they had dominated the tournament and laid down a marker that they will be the team to beat in 2012.

Back in New Zealand, the losing French captain, Ivorian Thierry Dussautoir, had scored a brilliant try to give his side a real chance of another major French upset over the All Blacks and been appropriately named The IRB’s Rugby Player of the Year.

Meanwhile in Sevens rugby another son of Africa, dreadlocks flying in his wake, the slight frame of eponymously named Cecil Afrika had run off with The IRB’s Sevens Player of the Year title. His forty tries in the HSBC’s international Sevens series had meant he had even pipped New Zealand master of sevens Tomasi Cama.

Yes, there’s no doubt that rugby made big strides internationally in 2011. Back home in Nigeria too. It crouched in preparation for battles to come. It reached out and touched a growing number of players and fans. Paused to gather its wits and Engaged us with some audaciously entertaining play.

An analysis of play at the Rugby World Cup reveals significant changes in the game of rugby itself since the 2007 final, brought on by recent rule changes. At the 2011 World Cup this the ‘ball in play’ has increased by 33 per cent. With teams opting to keep the ball in hand rather than kick it away the number of passes per games has rocketed 50 per cent and averages 263 per game and kicks from hand have dropped from 75 to 41 per match.

Judging by the Northern Sevens and the Lagos 7s Festival Nigeria clearly has abundant talent, though players lack coaching, experience and opportunities to play. There was way too much kicking by teams in the Lagos 7s and with the great runners in the game today kicking away away possession can be lethal. Particularly in sevens. Guys like Cecil Afrika, Yahaya and Abdul Malik will make you pay.

So, where to in 2012? Rugby has grown faster in Africa since 2007 than anywhere else in the world and it is time for sports administrators locally and internationally to lift there games another notch. Sevens becomes an Olympic sport in 2016 so starting now Nigeria has to begin to prepare our talented youngsters and our coaches. Business has to come to the party too with sponsorships and funding for legacy programmes such as the laudable Cowbell “I Try” programme coaching being sponsored in Lagos schools by Promasidor. Dr Richard Ajayi, President of the Nigerian Rugby Football Federation agrees; “We have to build a pipeline of players from a young age. We need to get our kids learning and playing earlier, in our primary schools. Then follow through with coaching and playing in our secondary schools, universities and on to the senior national squad,” he commented at the Lagos 7s Festival.

It was a pipe dream for Nigeria to win an Olympic Gold for football which Atlanta 1996 turned into a beautiful reality. A sevens medal in Brazil in 2016 may be a bridge too far. But wouldn’t it be glorious if in 2012 Nigeria took its first bold steps on a similar journey to Olympic Sevens Rugby Gold in 2020?

This weekend, the rugby year kicks off with a bang with the first round of the Six Nations. Games to watch out for on TV are France against Italy followed by Scotland and England then on Sunday Ireland take on Wales.

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