Many hope that Nigeria can become an African rugby powerhouse, but the promise has never been realised. We look at the reasons why and what is possible if everything moves in the right direction
Understanding Nigeria rugby
So fervid is Khaled Babbou that he calls back right away. The Rugby Africa president had been sent a question about rugby in Nigeria and the shock move to stop the nation from competing in World Rugby-sanctioned events. He wants to clear some things up.
“In May we received a notification from the government of Nigeria that they had dissolved the boards of their sports and that caretakers would run the union,” he begins.
“For us it was disappointing because after so much hard work with all parties in establishing a real good constitution (for rugby in Nigeria), to then just be swept away by some parties… Not recognising the mandate of the (rugby) board ends in August and a general assembly was planning new elections, for us it was like a cold shower.
“With this in mind and knowing about such interference from the government and no response from their Olympic Committee, we had to take these facts from Rugby Africa to World Rugby.”
When the move was made, you could hear the horrid tinkling in the distance. Dreams were being shattered. For the powers that be, though, they felt their hand was pushed. Once again government and sport went together like toothpaste and orange juice.
According to Babbou, due to cancelled events and the complexities of life in the past few years, concessions were made for a Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification repêchage competition to be put on to allow Nigeria (alongside Cameroon and Burkina Faso) another shot at progressing.
But with shockwaves being sent through the country’s sporting landscape and no communication from Nigeria’s government to the continental governing body to guarantee their rugby athletes’ safe travel, plans for testing or accommodation, Babbou says, Rugby Africa had to make the choice to withdraw the team from all competitions, until further notice.
There is clearly a sense of despondency coming from Babbou. As he explains, in 2016, before he was Rugby Africa president but on his way up through World Rugby’s ranks, he paid several visits to Nigeria to try to help them streamline and modernise the sport’s governance there. He describes the system of netting all sports together there as a ‘free-for-all’, but after a few years of hard work by those in the game in Nigeria, a new-look board was eventually pulled into shape.
Then everything was pulled apart again this year.
As Babbou adds: “It is bad news for us because I still consider Nigeria with Congo – Kinshasa – as the two biggest places where we can grow rugby (in Africa). Because of the size of the population, and also the natural physical ability there.
“Unfortunately, these two places are having a lot of problems growing (rugby) because of problems on the ground. But we keep working. I hope we can find a solution with the government, I hope that elections (that are meant to take place) will be done fairly. We try to push all the goodwill in Nigeria to participate and to try to make sure that rugby in Nigeria can go forward, but it has to be done through good governance, it has to be done with less intervention from the government.”
The reasoning does not make the eventual sanction any easier to take at an athlete-level. The system may be imperfect, the road jagged and rough, but there are still young players determined to undertake a journey in the name of Naija. They will have to bide their time.
And yet in Europe we likely know very little about rugby in Nigeria. We can haphazardly piece together assumptions based on the prowess of their athletes in other disciplines and an incredible line-up of Nigerian-British talent we see in the pro game here. Maro Itoje, Beno Obano, Paolo Odogwu, the Watson brothers: there are Test-level stars who could, at the sliding doors, have opted for Nigeria. Some still can.
The future, a section believe, could be very bright indeed for the Black Stallions. In the perfect world, at least. Others are not so optimistic. But if we are to construct our own predictions, we need to allow those who know the game – based in-country and abroad – to fill us in on where Nigerian rugby is right now and where it could eventually go.
ON THE GROUND
“I’m telling you from my aspect, the boys who are willing to play are not being encouraged from the top,” says Obi Wilson, a second-row from the Kano region in the north of Nigeria, who has thrown his all at rugby. As Wilson sees it, there is not a level of regular competition available to kids on the ground, unlike when he first started coming through 14 years ago. A lack of national competition is stifling the evolution of Naija rugby, he says.
He continues: “It’s very bad, because it’s something that you love, you’ve given a lot for it and somebody wants you to play this game. You’re doing everything you can, you’re working hard, then at the end of it somebody says, ‘There is no need, because there are no events coming in.’ So it kills the spirit of everybody.
“If you have competitions, it makes you get better and better and better. So it’s shame for my countrymen who are killing this – there are not more opportunities. But I pray that somebody good is going to come in at the top and make things better, because we have loads of talented players who are willing to play.
“Here in the North we have youngsters who are coming in who want to learn. They don’t face competition so they are struggling on a very low level. They don’t have something to talk about for the future.”
If you want to talk Nigerian rugby, though, eventually you’ll find yourself in discussion with Martin Crawford.
A Brit who had played all over, from LA to Moscow, he moved to Kano 18 years ago through his work as a private pilot. He emersed himself in the rugby culture in the country, pouring his passion (and undoubtedly resource) into the local and youth game in the state, helping found Barewa RC back in 2004.
He has seen talent emerge and thrive in his time in the game there, and feels that we have only scratched the surface for rugby potential. Of course, there have been some more fruitful times trying to push the national side on too. But like Wilson, Crawford has been dismayed to see roadblocks thrown up too often and pushing the sport any further up the hill can sometimes feel like a Sisyphean endeavour.
Alongside players from South Africa, the States and a few from the UK, a bulk of players from Nigeria were ready to face the likes of Cameroon and Burkina Faso – Barewa would be well represented. And then Crawford watched on as the civil servants dissolved sports unions.
The thing is, Crawford has seen something like this before. As he explains, there have been several iterations of the Nigerian rugby project. In 2012-13, Nigeria’s results in their Africa Nations Cup forays saw them jump up the World Rugby Rankings from 99 to 70, while performances against Mauritius before 2014 showed real progress.
Crawford was involved in 2014 when the team was making great strides and the sevens outfit qualified for the Commonwealth Games… only for the nation to pull the rugby side out of that competition. They were replaced by Barbados. Crawford was gone too.
Talking of what he sees today, Crawford tells Rugby World: “I could say to Khaled (Babbou, at Rugby Africa), ‘If you back us, we’re in it for the long fight.’ I’m happy to stake my position.
“The other thing is that with World Rugby and Rugby Africa, their development model is through competition. So pretty much as soon as you’re admitted as a member, they start getting you into competition. The problem with that is competition. In other words: foreign travel, airline tickets, visas, three square meals a day in a three-, four-star hotel. That’s currency and it attracts people to rugby who have no place being there.
“In somewhere like Nigeria, I would say, ‘Hey, well done, you’re re-admitted or whatever, but for the first four years, we are not going to allow you to compete. Until we see you have a strong domestic league, a youth programme and a women’s programme. Not until we see that to our satisfaction will we put you into international competition.’ That would remove that currency from the equation.
“The bad actors would have no incentive to get involved because they’re not interested in doing the heavy lifting. It’s gonna cost them time, effort and money and that’s not what they’re all about. It’s actually counterproductive to have competition.
“I don’t believe we’re the only nation (like this), and the only union with this problem. Maybe World Rugby needs to take a look at it.”
Had things in-country shaken out differently down the years, though, Crawford could see things in a very positive light. In talking about the strengths of Nigerian players, he discusses how in fictional World Cup qualification runs in the past they may have been steamrollered up front by Ivory Coast or Morocco, but today, “had we just been left alone” he is convinced such issues would have been ironed out.
And as he adds, if the game was left to flourish organically, there could be a real movement based around a unique Nigeria rugby identity. He goes on: “With 200 million people (in Nigeria), we’re spoilt for choice in terms of athletes. So you could argue that our natural game plan could be any game plan you pick!”
What is needed, it is clear, is a sense of positivity. Something for young athletes to aim for and be proud of. Through so many accounts, when things have worked well and players have been allowed to perform under the national banner, it has generated some exceptionally positive experiences.
And part of that has been helped in some part by the involvement of stars from outside Nigeria.
Almost four years ago, the topic of helping out an Exiles programme – maybe even trying to change eligibility and play for the Black Stallions – was put to Topsy Ojo. Still playing for London Irish but uncapped by England since he played twice on tour in New Zealand in 2008, the playing angle may not have been for him, but helping out the system certainly sounded good. The notion was percolating, but nothing more.
Then, Ojo explains, the shake-up in Nigerian sports happened and he became very interested.
“Things kind of accelerated again,” the former wing tells us. “A couple of guys I know reached out to say, ‘Look, we need a bit of help.’
“Guys were about to go home and play these qualifiers, and then, all of a sudden, the Nigerian sports minister disbanded all the federations, broke the agreement with World Rugby, and as a result we can’t play. They say it’s like the closest they’ve been to reigniting this kind of sleeping giant.
“People talk about Maro’s list (a tweet of Nigerian-British players). Nigeria has always and will always produce good athletes. And for the ones that can’t make England, why not go and represent your second country, and why not maybe build it to the point whereby guys do want to represent Nigeria, as their first choice? So I connected with a few of the guys, have been in a few meetings and just said I’m happy to get behind you, to support you as best I can.”
Ojo goes on to say that while he was lucky enough to wear a Test jersey, if he can help others get that flying feeling in the green of Nigeria, he will help in any way he can. And he can see the issues in Nigeria.
He says: “The secondary plan now is to get this exiles programme up and running, and fuel that dream for a lot of the guys. To say okay, domestically, things need to get sorted. If and when that happens, to say, ‘Here’s a team!’ These guys are ready to go, they’re ready to represent. They’ve been in good competition for a year or so, they’re fit, they’re healthy and they’re really keen to do this. So my bit is to support that in any way I can.”
If anything, Ojo says, the heartbreak of barred entry to competitions has actually motivated him to help out more. And it is an eternally exciting prospect, being one of the actors who played a small role in getting the best possible players running out for the Black Stallions.
It will not be plain sailing, even when the side are allowed to compete again. What Ojo and so many others are happy to speak openly about is whether there’s a natural ceiling on talent from the diaspora – if a second-generation star is ripping up the Premiership and qualifies for England and Nigeria, you have to respect that England will likely come first. But for Ojo, the dream is to get to a place where opting to then play for Nigeria is still seen as something to celebrate. To suggest Premiership superstars would do so tomorrow may be describing a half-full cup as overflowing, but at this point no dreams should be short-term.
Then there are other issues for even younger players, a few generations removed – some interviewees for this piece hint at the idea of ‘stacking’; where young Nigerian-Brits are encouraged towards certain positions on the field because of their physical attributes and all of a sudden you have an abundance of players in a few positions and not others.
With both issues, though, it starts with having genuine conversations about it. Then it’s about deepening the pool and also players being supported within the game, in countries like England, should they make the choice to represent a side like Nigeria.
WHAT COULD’VE BEEN, AND COULD STILL…
It is not always so straightforward, of course. Former London Welsh wing Joe Ajuwa points out the drive to have as many English Qualified Players (EQP) in any top-end squad. And so in a competitive market, some players would be aware of their value to a team around contract renegotiation time – especially if there are alternatives who offer something similar on the pitch, but who net EQP money. So when he was in his prime, he had to make a value call for whether he should be captured by Nigeria or remain EQP. He did not play for Nigeria.
According to Ajuwa, there are myriad other issues to contend with. He talks of the absence of a ‘maintenance culture’ in the country, using disrepair at the stadium in his hometown, Port Harcourt, as an example of a larger issue. He talks of factionalism in certain groups, and echoes Crawford’s tales of opportunism amongst the suits. He also tells a tale of his own, saying: “I went to a state governor who had been an understudy of my father – this man’s son had just started playing rugby.
“The kid was interested in growing the sport in Nigeria. So he came up to me and asked me to put something together, to start doing that. I remember calling Martin Crawford and going, ‘You’ve done this before, you’ve got it going up in Kano, what would you do?’ He sent me an example of one of his proposals.
“I had a study of it, and I put together the structure. Fantastic. It was signed off, everything was done. In fact, the project was touted in the local newspaper.
“But the money never came.”
Now based in Portugal, Ajuwa describes the sporting landscape in Nigeria as having a ‘crab mentality’ – evoking a proverb, he says, that a single crab in a pot will crawl out, but if you have a large number of crabs, they will pull each other back down into the pot.
Ajuwa does have some ideas about how to improve the landscape, though.
“I have plans, I have hopes that eventually we’ll be able to pull it off,” he says. “Whatever businesses I do – because we do a lot of stuff in the oil sector – I’m trying to broker a deal with one of these oil companies to sponsor the Nigerian rugby team.”
He talks of other potential sponsors and adds: “If we can have funds completely and utterly outside the purview of the government, okay. What I realised is that any kind of involvement with the government is 100% a ‘no’. Because if I’m able to go there with a governor who is essentially like a cousin, and they’re not able to push this through, even though he has personal interest in it, there’s no chance it is going to be able to happen in Nigeria.
“I’m sad to say it, but the headquarters of Nigerian rugby needs to be abroad, outside of Nigeria. And then you can go through the churches – churches are huge – to promote it, and go into schools, yet the funds cannot be touched by the government.”
What Ajuwa also adds is that there are so many good people within the sport in Nigeria who keep battling away, that there will always be an underlying optimism – the sport endures. Interestingly, in the times of uncertainty, others also point out that rugby league has been making quiet strides in Nigeria.
What gives Martin Crawford hope is what he has seen from the youth sides in Kano over the years. He has seen tenacity and athleticism, sure, but there is more to it in a country where the standard of play needs to be allowed to rise.
He tells us: “These kids are the brothers and neighbours and cousins of the guys who started playing rugby 15, 16 years ago. So every generation is a little bit better than the generation before. Their rugby smarts are handed on and it doesn’t have to all come verbatim from me!
“And in my experience it just filters down and it makes coaching a lot easier. And no doubt when they’re back at home they’re asking each other questions and solving their own problems and, you know, amusing themselves. So we have successfully managed to create a rugby culture in Kano. Would that there were 35 other states doing that too.”
In rugby’s great game of snakes and ladders, Nigeria will have to work their way towards that first rung again. But there is a willingness; a passion. For those that care, they want to see long-term improvements made, a bridging of a gap between the talent reared abroad and their own domestic players, but a deep connection too. Some Exiles have spoken of a ‘life-changing experience’ representing Naija.
What would real success for Nigeria rugby look like in ten years?
Perhaps it would be climbing the world rankings, qualifying for the Commonwealth Games in sevens or convincing firecracker talents like Simon Uzokwe of Ealing or Gabriel Ibitoye to choose the Black Stallions. Maybe it would be regularly beating the likes of Zimbabwe, Kenya or Morocco. Or maybe it will just be to compete internationally at all.
Finding out, unencumbered, could be one hell of a journey.
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