Rugby union has been played in Iran for longer than you might think.
Used informally in military training from at least the 1940s, the game fell out of favour following the Iran Revolution of 1978-79.
Aside from the exploits of Tehran-born scrum-half Aadel Kardooni, who played for Leicester between 1988-97 and represented England A in 1992, the country seemed to have little connection to rugby over much of the ensuing two decades.
However, that changed when a group of physical education students, led by their teacher Bijan Safaei, whose father had been a rugby player, began a renaissance at Azad University in 1996.
According to the Iran Rugby Federation (IRF), the equipment that Safaei was able to get his hands on included three rugby balls, two of which were between 30-50 years old, while the third was a football that had been fashioned into an oval shape using tape.
Undeterred, the game’s new disciples drummed up enough interest that by 2000 the foundations for what would become the IRF had been put in place, initially as a committee of the country’s Baseball Federation.
Becoming an associate member
In 2007, Iran played their first men’s test match, beating Pakistan 32-3 at a tournament in Sri Lanka. Three years later, the country became an associate member of World Rugby.
The IRF’s aim is to become a full member, and its case is backed up by some impressive growth. According to the union, the number of registered players in Iran increased by 20 per cent from 10,000 to 12,000 between 2019-20 alone.
Based on figures collected by World Rugby in 2019, that number would place Iran on a par with Belgium, and ahead of Rugby World Cup 2019 participants Georgia and Uruguay.
Moreover, 7,000 of those registered players are female. Nahid Biyarjomandi, who founded the first women’s rugby club in Iran, is a ‘Try And Stop Us’ ambassador and her involvement in the global campaign has had a positive impact in her homeland, according to IRF president Dr Hassan Mirza Aghabek.
“When Nahid was chosen for this project it was very important for all sports in Iran,” he told World Rugby.
“It makes us very happy and more supportive of women in Iran, and at this time Nahid is very famous in women’s sports. All the time [people] ask her how to do that, and she explains with hard work.”
Growing the game
Since it became an associate member of World Rugby, the IRF has implemented two five-year plans. The first was focused on growing Iran’s player pool, primarily through tag rugby, while the second dealt with identifying and training homegrown coaches and referees.
According to Aghabek, when he joined the union in 2011 there were only a handful of Iranian coaches and officials. Today, he is happy to report that 300 have attained World Rugby-accredited qualifications.
“Tag rugby is very safe for families, [who are] not afraid about injuries for boys and girls,” Aghabek said. “We have 31 provinces in Iran, and 29 provinces play rugby. It’s very good.
“When I came to the rugby association in Iran, we had just a few coaches and referees — about five or six people. But at this time we have a lot of national rugby coaches and referees, more than 300 take a certificate [from] World Rugby.
“We worked hard, we have a close [relationship] in education with Asia Rugby, Mr Benjamin van Rooyen. And Katie Sadleir, [General Manager, Women’s Rugby] at World Rugby really worked hard for Iran, and Nahid and me work very closely with her as a supporter.”