Ethiopia comes round to rugby
Addis Ababa welcomes spread of rugby after Welshman allays 30-man fight fears.
Last Modified: 03 Mar 2009 14:17 GMT

Could be a while before an Ethiopian gets his hands on this [GALLO/GETTY]
Ethiopians strolling on Addis Ababa's Jan Meda playing pitches have been shocked for the last few months by what many of them believe to be a group of foreign men locked in a violent brawl.

Fortunately, there is someone on hand to step in before the police are called.

Watchful Welshman David Thomas takes care to approach Ethiopians who stumble across the spectacle to tell them that it is not a fight – the men are playing rugby

"'What kind of people are doing this?' I thought when I first saw it," said Dawit Tekle Beyene, a 31-year-old who works at a donkey sanctuary.

"They are fighting each other."

Still viewed with suspicion by many locals – and once moved on by the police for causing a disturbance – the Addis Nyalas Rugby Club have now attracted Dawit and other Ethiopians into their ranks.

The ultimate ambition for Ethiopians – famous for their athletics prowess – is international seven-a-side competition.

"Seven-a-side rugby is a form of rugby which is a lot more accessible to smaller nations and nations which lack the necessary mass of rugby players to play 15-a-side rugby," said Thomas, a 25-year-old finance consultant and president of the club.

Seed change

The team are using membership fees from foreigners and money raised from an exhibition tournament to water and seed the dilapidated Jan Meda – a public amenity – and pay for health insurance for their Ethiopian players in a country that is still desperately poor.

The Sevens World Cup is taking place in Dubai from Thursday but Thomas said international competition was years away for the Ethiopians.

However, he believes, with more young people joining the team's ranks all the time, the Nyalas – the only rugby team in Ethiopia – are paving the way.

"Realistically for Ethiopian rugby, especially considering the speed and athleticism of some of our players, seven-a-side rugby is a much more feasible form of rugby for us to try and work towards and specialise in," he said.

The club have now invited teams from Kenya and Ivory Coast to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

An Orthodox Christian church stands in the middle of the playing fields in the hills overlooking the city where, every Saturday, the small band of men scrummaging, rucking and mauling are surrounded by eight or nine soccer matches played by football-mad Ethiopians in fake English Premier League jerseys.

Street children – some of whom first arrived to beg from the foreigners – spin rugby balls from their hands as Ethiopian teenagers learn how to tackle.

Native support

The team that started as a hobby for the expatriate community of aid staff and diplomats supplement their growing number of Ethiopian members with players from rugby-loving countries such as Britain, France, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

"Allez! Allez!" comes the cry in French from one side of the playing pitch as attacking techniques are taught.

"C'mon! Tackle him!" is the shout from the other side of the field, where defensive plays are practised.

More languages ring out as a game begins.

"There was a problem with language when we started," said Daniel Tegene, an 18-year-old student.

"But now we are learning the words involved with rugby and so we've learned how to communicate with the foreigners and can learn the game."

The team played in the grounds of a private school for two years and the decision to move to a public playing pitch was made to recruit more Ethiopians.

Expat no more

"We're turning ourselves into an Ethiopian rugby club and not an expats' rugby club," said Thomas.

"So we're aggressively recruiting Ethiopians from different walks of life."

Demes Mamo, a taxi driver, parks his cab at the side of the pitch every week and pulls on one of the new jerseys the team imported from Britain.

Each one has an Ethiopian flag on the arm and a crest featuring Ethiopia's nyala antelope.

"Other taxi drivers think I'm crazy to play rugby," said Demes, 31.

"But I love this game. Maybe one day there will be an Ethiopian team. That is my dream."

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