In this Rugby World Cup -mad environment, spare a though for the good folk of the island nation of Madagascar.
They are mad keen about rugby. They even call it their national sport. Only trouble is, they are not very good at it.
In the smug-speak of pale-faced rugby commentators, Madagascan rugby would be referred to as a ‘minnow’, along with all the other countries where the oddball game is not so highly rated. Come to think of it, before I stumbled upon this trivia trove, I don’t think anyone had heard of – or spoken or written about – Madagascan rugby.
But its all true. They love rugby over there, and have something of a long tradition in the game, after it was introduced to the capital Antanarivo in the 19th century by French colonial officers stationed in this steamy outflung outpost.
After a century of travail, the high point of Madagascan rugby is that the national team, named Les Makis (after the ring-tailed lemur), once beat Namibia (itself a minnow) 57-54 in the Africa Cup of 2012. A surprise result, even for the Madagascan themselves. They have no real prospects of fattening themselves on greater scalps – if you will forgive the mixed metaphors here.
In normal competition, Madagascar plays other minnows, the likes of Uganda et al. Still, Les Makis at home games attract a fanatical crowd following. Madagascar, ranked number 52 in world rugby, has never qualified for the world cup. Namibia has. I didn’t know there were even 52 countries in the world that indulged in this strange sport. (Consider for a moment: what happens on the rugby field, and within the confines of the rules of the game, is hardly normal human habit. A hard tackle, the much-vaunted ‘big hit’ would constitute grievous assault on the street, or anywhere else in normal life.)
I Googled: how many countries are ranked in the international rugby world standings? It turns out there are 105 ranked teams, which surprised me, with Madagascar sitting between Trinidad and Tobago, and the Cook Islands. There’s life there, down amongst the swimming schools of minnows. I wonder if they are even interested in the far-away, high-flying arena of the World Cup? Perhaps there should be a World Cup for minnows.
In a quaint inverse of traditional rugby demographics, the game is played mostly by women in Madagascar. No less than 60% of Madagascan rugby players are women. The women give a better account of themselves internationally, ranked at 43, between Botswana and Zimbabwe.
There’s one other connection, which, admittedly, I can’t make sense of – but which links Madagascar to the rest of the rugby-playing world. It’s well known that the game is loved by the Pacific Island nations. Madagascar, though far to the west, and close to the coast of East Africa, was originally settled by the same proto-Polynesian ocean voyagers who made great crossings in their double canoes. Apparently this is revealed by ancient root similarities between the Madagascan language Malgasy, and those of the Austronesian island nations. Is there also some ethnic predisposition to rugby that comes out here? I don’t rightly know. It would be dangerous to speculate.
But it’s true that Madagascans do tend to be attracted to sports of physical contact. There’s the traditional martial arts known as Moraingy, and the rather bizarre sport of Zebu (cattle) wrestling, called Savika.
Madagascar hardly features in world news. But it seems they have plenty political news of their own. Since independence from France in 1960, the island's political transitions have been marked by numerous popular protests, several disputed elections, an impeachment, two military coups and one assassination. Perhaps this is why they haven’t progressed much with their national sport – too distracted.
Anyway, maybe in the future, we will hear more about Madagsacar, the Madagascans, and their favourite pastime. Go the minnows!