Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 26 May 2019

Arabian Gulf rugby players to go ahead with Madagascar goodwill visit despite security concerns

The Air Seychelles Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors are due to fly to Antananarivo for a week-long tour of the island despite a deadly explosion at the stadium they were due to be playing at this weekend, writes Paul Radley.
Mike Ballard, in a wheelchair, attends a training session of the team touring Madagascar this summer. Reem Mohammed / The National
Mike Ballard, in a wheelchair, attends a training session of the team touring Madagascar this summer. Reem Mohammed / The National

ABU DHABI // A side of rugby players from the Arabian Gulf will go ahead with their goodwill tour of Madagascar, despite a deadly explosion at the stadium they were due to be playing at this weekend.

The Air Seychelles Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors are due to fly to Antananarivo on Tuesday night, ahead of a week-long tour of the island.

The team, made up of players from eight different Gulf rugby clubs, will be taking medical equipment, wheelchairs and rugby kit with them to the Indian Ocean island, as well as conducting coaching clinics.

They were also due to play a match against the Makis, the national rugby team who are ranked No 42 in the world, this coming Sunday.

That match, as well as the tour itself, was thrown into doubt after a grenade attack at the Mahamasina Municipal Stadium in the country’s capital on Sunday.

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Two teenagers were reportedly killed, with 84 others injured, in the incident at a concert staged to mark national day celebrations. The blast was deemed an “act of terrorism” by the country’s prime minister.

“Divergences in point of view may exist between us [but] if the leader does not suit you, you cannot kill the population,” President Hery Rajaonarimampianina was quoted as saying by the BBC.

“We will never tolerate destabilisation. Especially because this is not only destabilisation but an act of terrorism.”

Despite the unrest, the Conquistadors were still planning to continue with their tour, albeit with a revised schedule, after a security briefing on Monday night.

It had been anticipated that Sunday’s fixture, in the central stadium in the capital of Madagascar, where rugby is the national sport, might have attracted as many as 20,000 supporters.

However, police have banned formal gatherings in the wake of the grenade attack, meaning it will now not take place as planned.

The tourists still hope to get some playing time in at some point during their trip, and will go ahead with the schools and youth coaching clinics amid heightened security.

“The boys are gutted about the match, but at the end of the day, it is a charity mission and we want to achieve those objectives,” Winston Cowie, the Conquistadors team manager, said.

The Conquistadors first formed in order to play at the 2015 Dubai Rugby Sevens, with the purpose of supporting the Mike Ballard Foundation.

Ballard, who suffered a broken back in an accident while playing a domestic match in Abu Dhabi in 2014, has been back living in the capital since the end of last year.

Now back working at the New England Centre for Children in Mohammed Bin Zayed City, he is keen to redirect the fund initially set up to fund his rehabilitation to other causes.

Madagascar is the first overseas tour the Conquistadors will have undertaken. They will be taking a hefty cargo with them.

Among the items that will accompany them to Seychelles and then Antananarivo will be 60 wheelchairs, 350 junior rugby kits collected by various Gulf rugby clubs, and 100 new rugby balls, courtesy of Doha.

“Hopefully we will strike a cord with people there, and will be feeding in to something people will really enjoy,” Ballard said.

pradley@thenational.ae

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Updated: June 27, 2016 04:00 AM

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