15 June, 2020, marks the end of the lockdown on the island nation of Mauritius after 47 days without having recorded any new cases of COVID-19. Even if the borders will not reopen before 31 August, at least the island will be able to find a normal operation... and a restart of rugby.
Mauritius' insularity allowed it to be reactive very early, with the island quickly closing its borders in response to the pandemic. Responsiveness is the operative word of this Indian Ocean island of 1.2 million inhabitants over 1,865km², and it is thanks to this ability to react very quickly that the leaders of Mauritius Rugby will be able to resume their Olympic project, which was put to an abrupt end on 18 March, 2020.
A mission to develop sevens around the world
To carry it out, they bet on a big guy: the 1.97m Jean-Baptiste Gobelet. Gobelet is a former France Sevens player, a former winger, fullback or centre in XVs for Clermont, Biarritz, Stade Français and the Breakers from San Diego. "I arrived in 2017, just after the USA," says Gobelet, having just spent several months on a mission to develop sevens around the world.
In 2017, Gobelet met with Mauritian leaders, who encouraged him to come and see the so-called Rugby World Cup X, the World Club 10s, which took place on their territory. "I was pleasantly surprised by all the indicators and by the fact that Mauritian rugby had French, African and British influences," he admits today. "Economic and political stability with a very real rugby base. They had the necessary human resources in terms of players."
Goblet then signed to become a "super" national technical director, who also managed marketing, communication, management. From then on, the planets aligned to set up the Olympic 2024 project, a cycle during which not only the number of licensees will increase, but where the level will approach its peak.
Over double the number of local rugby clubs
Since the launch of the project, the island has grown its number of rugby clubs from four to nine, and the number of players has jumped 20% in 2019 (700 players today). Even the number of female rugby players has quadrupled in a very short time. "But everything remains fragile," concedes the national technical director. Strengthening institutional and economic partnerships quickly became evident.
"Rugby in Indian Ocean is exploding."
"Rugby in the Indian Ocean is exploding," says Jean-Baptiste Gobelet, after listing the sport's statistics in nearby islands: 1,000 licensees in Mayotte, 3,000 in Reunion, 40,000 in Madagascar, the first steps of rugby in Comoros.
"Madagascar is ranked in the top four for sevens in Africa and the level is still rising. There is quite a strong rugby base in the Indian Ocean. AROI (Indian Ocean Rugby Association) has a key role in organising youth and women's tournaments in the area. Mauritius is an emerging country that benefits from British culture in terms of rigor and the implementation of long-term programmes."
The Olympic project also includes being able to qualify a boys and girls team for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. "It may seem utopic for some, but the aim is to boost local rugby," admits the DTN. "But you have to be able to be in the qualification and draft process. We must be able to train promising young generations and bring them to this level."
The upper level of rugby sevens
The process will include the Youth Olympic Games, which will be held in Dakar, Senegal, from 22 October to 9 November, 2022. Rugby sevens seems to be the engine of the development of rugby in Mauritius.
"We will be able to regroup the Mauritian family around rugby. Rugby is going to restart all that..."
Proof of this is its return after 40 years of absence from the programme of the Indian Ocean Islands Games, which took place in Mauritius in July 2019 and where the locals won the bronze medal (behind Madagascar's gold and the silver for the Reunion) by relying on the U18 who had won bronze a year earlier at the African Youth Games.
The question is, will the coronavirus pandemic allow rugby to rebound quickly?
"In each crisis, the most important thing to remember is when you are down you need to know how to get up," philosophes Gobelet. He recalls the example of Fiji, which, six months before the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, had been devastated by the cyclone Winston, considered to be the most powerful storm in the history of the archipelago. Despite everything, by their faith and their resilience, Ben Ryan's boys went down in history by winning the first rugby sevens Olympic gold medal a few months later.
"During the lockdown, we continued to train the teams thanks to online sessions about refereeing, coaching, health and fitness. We followed up on the players on fitness and we especially worked on the administrative sides with World Rugby and the ministers. We do what we can and we are a 'D' system. We will be able to regroup the Mauritian family around rugby. Rugby is going to restart all that."
Photo: Mauritius Rugby