Saracens coach introduces rugby to Brazil ahead of Rio 2016 Olympics
PUBLISHED: 10:54 31 July 2014 | UPDATED: 14:11 31 July 2014
The FIFA World Cup has only just finished, but Brazil will be hosting another global sporting event in two years’ time – the 2016 Olympics.
Rugby has been absent from the schedule since the 1924 Games in Paris, but it will return in Rio in the popular seven-a-side format – the first time that version of the sport will appear at the Olympics.
A Try Rugby project has consequently been established in Brazil, in a partnership between Premiership Rugby, The British Council and Brazil’s Social Services of Industry (SESI).
It has been running in the state of Sao Paolo since 2012, in Santa Catarina since 2013, and has recently expanded into the state of Minas Gerais.
There are over 14,000 participants playing every week in Sao Paulo state, which has doubled the playing base in Brazil, and more than 54,000 young people and adults are now taking part in coaching sessions, workshops and competitions in Brazil.
Saracens community coach Nick Gourlay has been involved with the extension into Minas Gerais, and has now spent five weeks in Brazil, based in the city of Uberlandia.
A former pupil at University College School in Hampstead, and a former UCS Old Boys player, he has been discovering the difficulties and rewards of introducing a new sport to a football-mad nation right after the World Cup.
“I thought that was going to be the biggest challenge before I arrived here, but actually it hasn’t been so bad - and in some cases it has been helpful,” Gourlay told Ham&High Sport.
“The World Cup here was one of the best ever and was a great success in Brazil, even if the national team crashed out in spectacular fashion at the end.
“Brazil enjoyed being the centre of global attention and are already looking forward to the Olympics. With a lot of focus set to be on the re-introduction of rugby to the Games, people here in Brazil want to be a part of that story.
“In England I’ve often found a ‘rugby against football’ mentality but here everybody of all ages are fascinated by the new sport and the funny ball.
“There’s definitely interest in the sport. Although the 15-a-side code is very difficult to understand, we have been introducing people to the sport through tag rugby and sevens, which are far less difficult to pick up.
“Brazilians are very good natural athletes so the idea of running and beating defenders comes very easily to them and they thrive on it. Brazil is such a sporty nation that they are absolutely loving the new challenges and new experiences that rugby brings.”
Having studied Sport Science & Geography at Loughborough University, Gourlay is well suited to his role.
“One half of my family comes from the Philippines and I have always been interested in how basketball brings communities together in the face of great poverty and hardship,” he said. “I have always wanted to help use rugby to bring the same benefits elsewhere.
“To me the project was everything I have looked to be involved in - developing rugby in an incredibly exciting country and using it to help better the lives of young people and communities.
“I’ve found it much easier getting girls involved in sport here in Brazil than I did back in England as there is a real culture of girls’ participation.
“It has also been very different to England in the fact that we start our sessions with little or no knowledge of what rugby is meant to look like in the first place.
“In England, before every session, everybody has a go at kicking and drop-goals, but out here everybody just tries to get their head around making the ball bounce back up into their hands.”
Gourlay’s biggest difficulty has been the language barrier – he did not speak any Portuguese when he got the job in May and has encountered very few English-speaking Brazilians.
However, there are longer-term issues ahead: “Development of rugby out here poses completely different challenges,” he said.
“One of the most important goals of the project is that everything we do is sustainable. We don’t want to leave and for everything to fall apart and stop, so educating people to coach, teach and referee is incredibly important in making sure that what we do and set up is not just temporary.
“Whereas the interest is definitely there, the size of the country and the lack of facilities makes setting up systems that are long-lasting incredibly hard.
“Equipment is not easy to come by, and every weekend the local team strap poles to the sides of a football goal to make the rugby posts. Sorting out equipment so that we have a good number of schools competing with each other and regularly participating in rugby will be a real challenge in the future.”