Ethiopian youth catch rugby fever

ADDIS ABABA - In Ethiopia, athletes are more associated with the graceful, wiry figures of the nation's long-distance running legends than with the heavyweights of international rugby.

ADDIS ABABA - In Ethiopia, athletes are more associated with the graceful, wiry figures of the nation's long-distance running legends than with the heavyweights of international rugby.

But the enthusiasm generated by the recent rugby World Cup in France looks set to allow the sport to take root in new unlikely places.

Out of the 35 players who gather each week in Addis Ababa, coach Fabrice Houpeaux's squad boasts plenty of pacey wingers but suffers from an obvious dearth of beefy forwards and muscular centres.

"It's a very demanding sport, it needs a lot of time spent in the gym to improve stature," admits Chris Gabresi, a teenager from Addis Ababa who likes to play on the wing.

"For us Ethiopians, the idea of playing professional rugby at the moment is out of the question."

The sport is starting from scratch in Ethiopia. It has yet to have its own pitch with posts and is up against the phenomenal popularity of the English and other European football leagues.

France provided balls, kits and other equipment as part of an initiative called Rendez-Vous 2007 launched in the run-up to the World Cup, which also sent two Ethiopians players to France to watch the games.

"The only way to improve the status of rugby in the country is to make children play and have sufficient instructors," says Houpeaux, who coaches Ethiopia's only club.

Coverage by the South African satellite network has spurred unprecedented interest for rugby in the Horn of Africa nation.

As a growing number of spectators gather in the stands to watch training sessions, newcomers have shown interest in joining the club and the players expected their ranks to swell as the World Cup reached its climax.

"The atmosphere is friendly and encouraging, we are always dedicated when we arrive for training," says 16-year-old Selam Nadew. "We will probably have more players next time but they have to be committed," adds Chris Gabresi. - Sapa-AFP

X