Go down any of the bustling streets in the Madagascan capital of Antananarivo and there’s a fair chance that it won’t be long before an oval ball comes into view.
The vibrant city, with a population of 1.6 million, boasts a staggering 161 rugby clubs, 40 of them housed in the district of Majakaray, one of the real strongholds of the sport.
Meanwhile, World Rugby’s mass participation programme, Get into Rugby, is active in all of the country’s 22 regions and rugby is a mainstay of the school curriculum. A National Schools’ Championship is held every year and involves the five best girls’ and boys’ teams from five provinces.
With nearly 40,000 registered players all told, Madagascar boasts the 16th biggest playing population in the world. And if they’re not playing the game they love, they’re watching it, either at the grounds or on national television.
New Zealand, South Africa, Wales and Georgia are not the only countries who can genuinely claim rugby as their national sport.
Even Antananarivo’s abbreviated name – Tana – references rugby, although it’s safe to say any link with the former All Blacks captain is purely coincidental.
“It’s a great rugby country,” said former Racing 92 under-20 player Frédéric Dumant, who is now acting as a marketing consultant on behalf of the Madagascan Rugby Union.
“The first time I went to Madagascar four years ago, everybody knew about rugby and wanted to talk to me about it, whether I was at the airport, in a taxi ... everywhere.
“It reminded me of the south-west part of France, it’s the same there, they are fanatical.”
Rugby was brought to Madagascar following the French colonisation of the island in the late 19th century.
The physicality of the sport struck a chord with Madagascans, particularly in the Kingdom of Imerina (now, the Analamanga region, which contains Antananarivo). Many Madagascan ancestral activities were based on individual combat there, such as Diamanga, a variety of French boxing, and Savika, a form of bullfighting, and rugby fitted in with the local culture.
“People in poor neighbourhoods have appropriated the value of this sport," national men's 15s head coach Philippe Canitrot said, in an interview with Telegraph Sport earlier this year.
"The challenge and the struggle to let off steam are good outlets after a very hard week of work to find something to eat and support your family. Being a rugby player and especially Makis is of great recognition in poor neighbourhoods. It’s a social promotion in the lower part of the city.
“What the players love is the game made up of a lot of passing and racing. This fits well with their profile, skilful, agile, quick. But also hard and warlike. Believe me, they are tough on tackling. It still lacks collective rigour, but we are working on it. What made me go to Madagascar is my passion for the country but also this indescribable strength that exists in all players. This ability to overcome problems and difficulties to satisfy their passion for rugby.”
Makis make their mark
In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, rugby had established itself as the number one sport in Antananarivo with sell-out crowds for big club matches at the Mahamasina Municipal Stadium.
Soon, they had a national team to cheer on, too, as the ‘Makis’ welcomed Italy to their shores for an official two-test tour in 1970.
A 17-year hiatus in test activity followed before the Makis marked their introduction to international rugby with their maiden win, 22-16 against Kenya.
Most famously, in 2012, they defeated Namibia 57-54 in a game that would have been barely believable had 40,000 people not been there to witness it.
It secured the Makis a place in the top tier of the Rugby Africa Cup and, in 2014, they hosted the Rugby World Cup 2015 qualifiers in Antananarivo.
As recently as 2018, an Oxford University Blues team, featuring former English Premiership players such as Dom Waldouck and Ben Ransom, took on the national team in a two-test tour, while the following year the RAF’s Spitfire team competed in a sevens tournament on the island.
Securing regular fixtures outside of the Rugby Africa Cup competition, though, remains a challenge for the Madagascar Rugby Union, who became full members of the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) in 1998.
The coronavirus pandemic has put paid to this season’s fixtures against Zambia and Namibia, while a tour by the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers XV from the UK has had to be shelved.
Alternative arrangements for later in the year are also in jeopardy. “We’d been in negotiations with the Sri Lankan rugby union to host the Sri Lanka international team for a two-test series at the end of November/start of December, but that doesn’t look like happening now,” revealed Dumant.
The Mahamasina Municipal Stadium, the stage for all major Madagascan games, may stand quiet for now, but hopefully, it won’t be too long before the Makis get to perform their pre-match tribal dance – not too dissimilar to the All Blacks’ Haka – in front of thousands of rugby-mad supporters once again.