Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 May 2019

Mike Ballard Conquistadors hopeful of Madagascar match despite latest venue veto

ANTANANARIVO // A touring side of players from the Arabian Gulf are confident they will get to face Madagascar’s full national team, even though the fixture was shelved again on Friday.

The Air Seychelles Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors were scheduled to play against the No 42 ranked side in the world at the 22,000 capacity Mahamasina Municipal Stadium in Antananarivo on Sunday.

However, a grenade blast at the ground, at a free concert to mark the Indian Ocean island’s National Day celebrations last weekend, means it is now out of commission.

A rearranged time had been planned for Friday afternoon, at the national rugby ground, approximately 20 minutes from the city centre.

However, that was then aborted over misgivings about the state of the playing surface by the touring players.

They had put it to a vote on the morning of the game. Although those in favour of playing at the Makis stadium held the majority, the decision was vetoed because of overriding fears of potential injuries being suffered on what is, first and foremost, a goodwill tour.

When the Conquistadors trained at the ground on arrival on Wednesday afternoon, one of their number suffered an ankle injury because of the potted pitch.

More from the Madagascar tour:

‘Easier to play with shoes than without’: Gulf clubs bring rugby aid to Madagascar

‘Business as usual’: Mike Ballard and a story of rugby, paralysis and inspiring UAE return

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

“It is like playing at Kuwait’s pitch with a couple of meteors having hit it, so we are looking for a safer alternative,” one player said.

Given the high standard of their opposition, they concluded going easy during the match will not be an option, and so a new venue was sought.

By the time the rescheduled fixture had been due to kick off, the tour organisers, local liaison and Madagascar rugby federation officials were considering a fourth new option.

Despite the continued false-starts when it comes to the big match, the Conquistadors continue to be popular tourists in Madagascar’s most densely populated city.

With the idea that the fixture against the Makis was still scheduled to go ahead in the afternoon, the players had to be resourceful when it came to limbering up.

Given they were congregated at relatively short-notice, from eight clubs in three countries across the Gulf, the players are still learning each others names, let alone line out codes.

As such, they stole some much-needed practice in surreal circumstances. On a packed thoroughfare next to the capital’s central square, the forward pack ran through line out drills, in front of a packed audience.

Furthermore, they have already attracted supporters, despite having yet to play a match.

The team gave out sports kit donated by various Gulf rugby clubs on Thursday. A day later, a woman was outside the side’s hotel, wearing a sparkling white Dubai Hurricanes t-shirt, with the club’s “Who do you play for?” motto on the back.

“Because of the events of a few days ago, we have to take things one day at a time,” said Winston Cowie, the Conquistadors’ hooker and tour manager.

“It can be a little bit frustrating, but in saying that, the boys are absolutely loving being here. We went out on the street in the middle of the day and did line outs.

“There were smiles everywhere. A crowd of a couple of hundred were around us, and we gave a few balls away. The kids took off down the street and were doing moves as good as the All Blacks.”

It appears the most viable option for the fixture is increasingly likely to be a cow’s field near the capital city’s central train terminus.

It is in fact a well-appointed private venue, owned by one of Madagascar’s top rugby clubs. That said, a bull was marauding the field as the Conquistadors conducted a training session there.

For Cowie, dodging cow-pats was a reminder of his days growing up playing rugby in the north of his native New Zealand.

“It is a rural town and before the opposition would come up on a Saturday, the day before the farmer would put his herd across the field,” he said.

“Opposing teams always knew they were in for a dirty match, in more ways than one. We have a possibility of a similar type field, the only difference being the cows on there have horns as wide as the new moon.

“There’s a few obstacles, but everyone is in really, really good spirits and enjoying the Arabian Gulf spirit on the trip.”

pradley@thenational.ae

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Updated: July 1, 2016 04:00 AM

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