A sports-loving country that boasts such stars as Brian Lara and Dwight Yorke from the worlds of cricket and football, Trinidad and Tobago recently rediscovered what it felt like to be a winner on the rugby pitch again when, last Saturday, the Calypso Warriors were crowned NACRA champions for the fourth time.
Having defeated reigning champions Guyana – the dominant force in Caribbean rugby for the last five years – en route to their 30-16 win in the final against Mexico, no-one can deny Trinidad and Tobago were worthy of their first title since 2008.
For head coach and local police officer Larry Mendez, a rugby devotee from an early age, there are many reasons behind the renaissance.
“It's an accumulation of things,” he said. “A few years ago New Zealander Murray Roulston was hired for a period of time as technical director. Murray introduced a different level and approach to training and selection.
"I believe that the players have matured tactically and physically and mentally and now have a collective and individual understanding of what they have to do"
"I also spent three months in New Zealand obtaining Level 3 Coaching qualifications and fine-tuning my approach to preparation with various teams in Dunedin.
“Last year we trained very intensively for the Commonwealth Games and the Central American and Caribbean Games. We also participated in the Hong Kong Sevens and Las Vegas Sevens, and many of the players who benefited from the experience and exposure they got there play in our XVs side.
“I believe that the players have matured tactically and physically and mentally and now have a collective and individual understanding of what they have to do especially when under pressure.”
Leading by example
Trinidad and Tobago had to defend for their lives in the latter stages of both the semi-final and final, and Gomez says the role of captain Adam Fredericks in steering them home to victory cannot be understated.
“Adam is a true leader of men,” he said. “He shows great leadership, especially when the team is under pressure and things aren't going their way. He keeps his composure and makes great decisions.”
“Mentally and emotionally, I think the Guyana match was a significant victory,” Mendez added. “It showed the growing self-belief and self-confidence of our players.”
Cheered on by a passionate home crowd that included Commonwealth Games 2014 silver-medallist shot-putter Cleopatra Borel and swimmer Shanntol Ince, the first Paralympian to compete at the Commonwealth Games in 2010, Trinidad and Tobago raced into a 23-7 half-time lead against Mexico before withstanding a fierce late onslaught from the visitors to Port of Spain.
“The players stuck to the game plan in the first half and that gave us a considerable cushion,” Mendez said. “When Mexico fought back really strongly, as I expected them to, the players stuck to the defensive patterns and dug deep, individually and as a unit. We made our tackles and worked hard at the breakdown.
“There is room for improvement. We have to continue to work hard at the basic aspects of the game. But I credit the players for their work ethic; they are willing to work hard.”
With only 13 registered clubs and a player base of less than 5,000 in a population of 1.3 million, there is considerable scope for unearthing new talent in the twin islands.
Given the figures, the athletic abilities and strength that has seen Trinidadian-born Delon and Steffon Armitage (pictured) reach the top of the game cannot be unique to the ninth set of brothers to play for England.
“We will do our best to keep this group together but we need to grow the talent pool and we need to play more. We simply don't play enough competitive rugby as a national team,” Mendez said.
“But I must acknowledge the work of Tom Jones (World Rugby's Regional General Manager for the Americas). He continues to push for improvement across all facets of rugby in the region.
“His commitment and that of World Rugby to improve the standard of rugby in the Caribbean is a key aspect.”
Main photo credit: Roger Navarro
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