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African rugby away from the 'boks

Today saw the start of the first African Championship Division One – the culmination of three years of development and planning across a continent often dominated by one of the rugby super powers.

We recently spoke to Ernest Akor, a rugby journalist based in Uganda, about how the challenges the women’s game faces outside South Africa

“In Uganda and Kenya, women's rugby, like most other disciplines, it is playing catch up with men's rugby having fallen off around the 2000s. The two countries are the only ones in East Africa with an active test teams at the moment but Rwanda and Burundi used to play in the past.

“However, Uganda and Kenya have competitive local competitions in both 7s and XVs, and compete in international tournaments by Rugby Africa and World Rugby.

“The main challenge is like that women face in any other sport. Our conservative cultures have not yet fully embraced women taking part in sport, especially rugby which still has the label of "a man's game". And that's the first of many hurdles women's rugby has had to leap over.

“In addition, most of the resources and focus goes to the men who are already miles ahead in all aspects.

“For Uganda, sport is not well funded by the government or private investors. Football is the most popular sport and it takes a lion's share of the resources and facilities available for all. Thus, development and sustainability of rugby as a whole is difficult which by extension affects the women's game.”

What do you think about the new Africa Cup?

“I am a supporter of the Africa Cup. It is still a "small" tournament with about a dozen nations taking part out of 54 African countries but there is great potential in the future. Even so the gap between the top nations and the rest is still too huge which is not favourable for competition and marketing as a product.

“But the tier (and regional) system used all year round and in the RWC cycles to qualify for the Rugby Africa Cups is working well. Teams compete in clusters according to their regions and tiers with the best progressing up the chain. Thus, more teams have more competitive game time against teams of similar strength and experience.

“If more nations take up rugby, then we shall have better tournaments which will encourage the growth of the game across the continent.

How do you see African rugby developing

“In my view, African rugby has two opportunities at our hands; the huge geographical area and populations.

“The stakeholders can harness these two strategically to introduce the game to more people (as players, fans or investors) in the different countries and to make a step forward in already active countries. However, it will take patient investment and allocation of resources before tangible results are realised.”

And WXV?

“The WXV is an opportunity for our countries to compete more regularly alongside the leading test nations. Our rugby has had slow growth because there are not many tournaments for women to compete. For example, Uganda's most capped player Charlotte Thereza Mudoola got her 25th cap last year after 17 years while England captain Sarah Hunter reached 139 caps within 15 years. This new tournament format keeps the calendar active throughout the RWC cycle.

“While the WXV alone will not miraculously erase all our challenges, it will open more doors for women's rugby in Africa to catch up with the rest of the world.”