x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A watershed moment coming for Afghanistan rugby side

Afghanistan's sevens team is looking to follow the lead set by the nation's cricket side.

Afghanistan, in white, has traveled to tournaments to face other seven-a-side teams such as Pakistan, in black.
Afghanistan, in white, has traveled to tournaments to face other seven-a-side teams such as Pakistan, in black.

One of world sport's most uplifting triumph narratives of the past decade has started to meander slightly of late.

The one about the team of Afghan cricketers who first learnt the sport by throwing stones in refugee camps after being displaced from their homeland by bloody war and oppression.

The guys who were given special dispensation to carry on with their sport by the Taliban's morality police, on account of the fact the game promotes manners.

That team who started out on the bottom rung of the international cricket ladder, and within a few short years were sharing a playing field with the stars of India, Pakistan and South Africa.

Their journey has been arresting, but the story has started to become a little worn lately. That is not to say Afghanistan cricket has started to regress. Quite the opposite. The problem is, now they are just too good. They cannot stop winning.

They have done their struggling. Their players are professionals, and have even become great stars in their homeland. The underdog status has long since been shed.

The refugees have arrived.

Now it is time for Afghanistan sport's next trick: rugby. Today a 10-man Afghanistan squad will play their first fixtures against foreign opposition, the all-Emirati UAE Shaheen side, while on their maiden tour in Dubai.

The beginning has been characteristically humble. Why wouldn't it be? As with the cricketers, most of the players first learnt the game across the border in Pakistan after fleeing conflict. And this time last year they had only three players.

"My family left Kabul because of the fighting and moved to Islamabad, and I first played rugby in Pakistan," said Aziz Ahmed, the Afghanistan scrum-half.

"Rugby can become the same as cricket in our country, but it is going to take time. It is already becoming popular in Afghanistan."

Cricket's success has been founded on the fact that it has invested in Afghans a rare sense of national self-esteem.

Around 15,000 Afghans watched their cricketers play an international against Pakistan in Sharjah recently. The rugby players are looking forward to the prospect of imitating that sort of popularity.

"The cricketers are big stars in Afghanistan," Ahmed said. "But people do know about rugby, too. When we go back to Kabul from Dubai, the TV channels will report it and people will come to see us."



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