Rugby's Changing Face: From the Privileged to the Downtrodden

Rugby's Changing Face: From the Privileged to the Downtrodden

Why you should care

Because sports could yet again serve as the great leveler. 

Obed Karwhin has heard more than once about how Africans don’t play rugby. It doesn’t bother him — not because the stereotype is old, but because it’s not true. And Karwhin knows that as well as anyone.

Since its birth in early 19th-century Britain, rugby has largely remained a bastion of upper-class privilege. The sport spread across the breadth of the British Empire but remained an elite activity in most countries even after the end of colonial rule, despite occasional dents to that shell of privilege. Now, an emerging breed of young rugby players is challenging that old order more decisively than ever.

A refugee from the Ivory Coast, 21-year-old Karwhin recently joined the Redcliffe Dolphins rugby club near Brisbane, Australia, a team that in the past has given the country several national players. After living in a refugee camp along the Bosnia-Croatia border as a child, Admir Cejvanovic is now a fixture on Canada’s national team for rugby sevens — a faster, seven-a-side version of the sport. Mo Mustafa, a Palestinian refugee who settled in Britain, represented England students internationally before taking up medical studies. Italian national team player Mata Maxime Mbanda’s parents came to Italy from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ohio-born Carlin Isles bounced around the foster care system before emerging as among the United States’ top rugby sevens players. In war-torn Benghazi, young Libyan men have formed a rugby union, and the city is building a stadium that will host Middle Eastern and North African teams in an international tournament next year. And the Tre Rose rugby club in the Italian province of Alessandria is made up almost entirely of refugees from multiple countries, says team spokesperson Carla Gagliardini.

If it wasn’t for rugby league and the right people around me, I would end up on the street.

Obed Karwhin, rugby player

For the sport, the emergence of these young men and many more like them marks an opportunity to spread across class and region like never before. For men like Karwhin, the sport represents a path to the future.

“If it wasn’t for rugby league and the right people around me, I would end up on the street like [a] wannabe thug, like most of my friends I grew up around,” says Karwhin. “Rugby league took me away from all that nonsense, all that gang violence.”

For sure, the elitism surrounding the sport has varied from country to country. For decades, New Zealand teams have had prominent Maori players, while Australia has played aboriginal players over the years. In some Pacific Island countries formerly under the British Empire — like Fiji, Tonga and Samoa — rugby is the most popular sport among locals. But the Caucasian dominance over the sport’s governance has remained. And the ongoing spread of players from diverse regional and racial backgrounds across the world’s rugby leagues, including in the sport’s powerhouses like Australia and England, is unparalleled.

Broadening the sport’s reach makes sense for teams and countries, says Mustafa. “It’s like with any sport. It doesn’t make economic or financial sense to limit your crowd or limit the talent pool,” he says. “You have to try to become more competitive. The one way to do that is to expand to different demographics as players.”

Special programs are cropping up to tap into the growing interest in rugby among nontraditional demographics. Karwhin has been a prominent contributor to Africa United, one such youth rugby program in Australia that specifically recruits players from African nations. So far, Africa United men’s and women’s teams have excelled, becoming rallying points for the country’s growing African community. Amid a national debate on immigration in Italy, Tre Rose, a Division II club nestled in the town of Casale Monferrato, has tried to build a competitive team of young refugees — including some who fear deportation and have faced discrimination. That experiment has in turn inspired other Italian clubs to look at refugees as a pool of talent, says Gagliardini. “They are contacting us and asking how we did this,” she says.

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Members of the first Palestinian rugby team, the Beit Jala Lions, train at their stadium in the West Bank town of Al-Khader near Bethlehem

Source MENAHEM KAHANA/Getty

Stiff challenges still limit opportunities for this emerging set of rugby enthusiasts. Proper training, crucial for success, sometimes remains elusive in English rugby, says Mustafa. “You have to play for a prestigious school or a prestigious club,” he says, adding that this is changing, though.

But such challenges are nothing compared to the struggles many of these players have grown up with, and overcome. As a child, Karwhin, his mother and younger brother had to walk a month through the bushes of the Ivory Coast to flee a devastating civil war, witnessing wanton violence and eating what they could find until they reached the Guinean border. Eventually, they settled in Australia. Mustafa’s journey hasn’t been simple either. Born into a Palestinian family in Saudi Arabia, he came to Jordan as a refugee when he was 2 years old, before his family settled in the United Kingdom. He played rugby in school growing up, but it wasn’t until he was expelled from public school and enrolled in a private school that he gained access to the training required to succeed at the sport. To play professionally, Mustafa needed to travel 2.5 hours by bus and foot each day.

What’s different now, though, is that these young players aren’t as alone as they once were. In May, Mbanda — the Congo-born Italian player — visited Tre Rose with representatives from the national rugby federation.

The club’s players need that support, says Gagliardini, the spokesperson. Communication is tough since not all players speak the same language. Their immigration hopes still hang in the balance, a constant source of stress. “They think about this all the time,” she says. “What we do is not just an opportunity for sport.”

* Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified refugees on the Tre Roses rugby team as primarily Syrian.

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