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The Incredible Rise of African Rugby

Not many Nigerians are aware that rugby is played in the country. The sport, though a team discipline, is not ranked as a favourite among many Nigerians in the same breath as football and basketball. So it was heartwarming when APO Group, a leading media relations agency and Official Partner of Rugby Africa, released key facts and figures into the Incredible Rise of African Rugby.

In 2002, there were only six countries with notable participation in rugby on the continent: Morocco, South Africa, Namibia, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, and Ivory Coast. Fast forward to 2018 and an increase by 84%, Rugby Africa, World Rugby’s African association, has 38 union members including Nigeria.

Growth in player registration in 2017 was 66% (excluding South Africa) against an overall global increase of 27%. Countries with the quickest growth in total number of players between 2016 and 2017 as identified in the report were Nigeria, Mauritius, Madagascar, Namibia, and South Africa, a fact clearly illustrating the passion for rugby across Africa.

Prior to the commencement of the rugby league season in Nigeria, then candidate for president of the Nigeria Rugby Football Federation, Kelechi Mbagwu, made a commitment to increase participation in the sport from the Igbo-speaking South-East and the Niger-Delta region of South-South. True to his promise, there are more professional teams in the league from the zones.

Registration growth in Nigeria from 2012-2017 has seen an increase by +282% compared to an increase of +292% in Senegal according to the report. Though official numbers were not stated, the growing popularity of rugby shows a blossoming affinity.

Out of 105 countries playing competitive rugby in the world, one-third are African nations. “Rugby talents are everywhere on the continent”, an excitement that is further demonstrated by Madagascar, a country with more rugby clubs per capita than any other country where 160 teams exist in Antananarivo alone. Crowds for their international matches can top 40,000 people.

Pivotal to the growth of rugby in Africa is participation in competitions. Already organized in several countries is the Rugby Africa Gold Cup which served as a qualifier for the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Namibia’s team won the Qualifiers to secure its place at the world’s third largest sports events.

In September saw another tournament organized and to act as a qualifier for the 2020 Olympics in Japan; the Africa Rugby 7s tournament will have only one country represent the continent. Nigeria participated in the regional event hosted and won by Ivory Coast.

There are 8 African teams ranked in the men’s XVs top 50 rugby teams with Namibia currently ranked 23rd in the world. Meanwhile, Kenya’s men’s rugby 7s team were recently ranked as high as 7th in the world in the top 10. The team regularly competes near the top of the world game. Ghana is now ranked 9th in 7s rugby.

Women are not left out in the Group’s study. Three African rugby unions are chaired by women, and Rugby Africa’s general manager is a woman.

In 2017, Rugby Africa had the highest percentage of female participation of any other region (46%) in the world. More than 20% of rugby players are women and girls in Africa.

Other key breakdowns:

  • Female referees are already officiating top-level men’s matches in Africa.
  • Female rugby players increased by 50% in the space of a year.
  • 70% (38 out of 54) of African nations are recognized as “rugby playing” countries.
  • Africa, one of the fastest growing fanbases with an increase of 30+ million fans since 2013.
  • Madagascar alone, has 520+ clubs.

The top five African countries where the average penetration of rugby fans calculated is 35% versus a global average of 23%: (1) South Africa (2) Nigeria (3) Madagascar (4) Kenya (5) Cameroon.