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South America: challenges and opportunities

Over the past couple of months we have been looking in detail at one of women’s rugby in South America. Today Thomas Wheelock concludes his series with an overview of the challenges and opportunities faced by CONSUR – the IRB’s regional organisation for the area.

Consur (Confederacion Sudamericana de Rugby) is one of the biggest of IRB’s  regional rugby bodies. It governs a huge area from the southern border of Mexico all the way down to Chile, a huge region of over 18,000,000 Sq. Km and including over 430,000,000 people

Founded in 1988 in 2009 it became the official governing body for youth, senior, and women’s rugby for the area. This relatively small body has huge challenge of supporting and governing the game in its twelve full –member countries, from Ecuador in the north west to Brazil in the east, as well as a growing number of associate members, mainly in Central America.

This huge area means huge logistical challenges - and you need to travel great many hours to meet a team from your own country, never mind travelling cross-border for international fixtures.

Meeting the needs of so many different countries and cultures has created its own problems and political issues. There is a case for suggesting that, since its formation, CONSUR has over-expanded and should perhaps have stuck to managing South America and countries south of the Darien Gap (the natural divide between North and South) as they are closer geographically and historically. Expanding to the north has created unnecessary challenges as no roads to speak off connecting the north and central states.

The driving force behind the development of the Americas’ two regional bodies has been less one of geography and more, perhaps, language and culture. Mexico excepted, NACRA is mainly English-speaking, including within its membership Guyana from South America, while CONSUR is almost entirely Spanish and Portuguese speaking.

Because of the size of some countries clubs on borders often play much of their rugby in neighbouring countries. A case in point is Tacna and Arequipa on the Peruvian Border plays against teams in Chilean Border as it is easier to travel (3 hour bus journey) rather than go north to Lima which is almost 18 hour bus journeys.

The common denominator and one of the biggest problems for women particularly across the whole continent is resources and training pitches. Most training occurs on Astroturf as there are no training grounds in many countries. In La Paz, in Bolivia, the topography of the city dictates that there is only one set of training pitches for all the sports and is a trial in itself getting any two hour slot. There are similar examples in other countries and despite the game now being officially an Olympic sport clubs still have to fight for resources and facilities.

The other problem, which affects men and women alike, is the like of trained coaches or exposure to coaching rugby. There are a number of qualified coaches but proper exposure to the sport is severely lacking and because of that understanding of how to coach or train players is limited.

Not many coaches from outside the region visit these countries - and the ones that do tend not to venture into some of the more remote and grassroots areas. Knowing the language is a important and a significant advantage as it makes coaching and explanations far easier, but when it is available it is welcomed. My own experience is that even simple rugby can be real eye opener for players in the more remote areas. Some coaches have been coaching using the template of other sports, so when they are shown them another way of coaching more relevant to the game it helps enormously.

Women’s rugby across the continent is at embryonic stage and needs nurturing, and will need to keep on beating this drum. Fifteens Rugby is possible but it will take even more time. Looking back at my time on the Continent I can see now why sevens is the right path, but a push for fifteens needs to take place to keep the momentum going, though such a move wil require care and detailed planning. For now rugby is bringing women into sport, so trying to push the larger game when player numbers are low has risks.

In my articles over the last few weeks, I have attempted to show what is happening in Latin America and how, despite all challenges, women’s sport has expanded rapidly. This is the first team sport in the region where women are feeling included but cultural barriers still have come down in such a conservative region of the world.

However Latin America may lessons for more advanced rugby countries in terms of maximising the potential of all its players getting them to organise themselves for games.

These are exciting times on the continent Women players are enthusiastic and excited about expanding the sport – but they still need all the help they can get!

"Players are enthusiastic and excited about expanding the sport – but they still need all the help they can get!"