The world’s oldest open rugby club travels to play in the Cancun Sevens as part of the ‘Dual Year UK and Mexico 2015’ project
by Duncan Herbert
Members of Blackheath’s men’s and women’s 1st team squads are flying out to Mexico this week to take part in the Cancun International Sevens Tournament. The Club has been invited by the Mexican Sports Ministry and the Mexican Rugby Federation to represent the United Kingdom at the tournament as part of the Dual Year, the “Year of Mexico in the United Kingdom” and the “Year of the United Kingdom in Mexico.” The governments of both countries have designated 2015 as a year in which they will each promote the interests of the other country in order to enable better understanding between the two societies. The project involves exchanges in the areas of art, culture, trade, investment, tourism, education, science and innovation. It is planned to be an exceptional year for the friendship between Mexico and the United Kingdom, building on a diplomatic relationship which goes back almost 190 years.
Director of Rugby Simon Legg has responded to the invitation by taking two men’s sevens teams and one sevens team from the Club’s women’s squad. In the spirit of exchange created by the Dual Year, the whole squad will take part in an outreach programme, introducing the game of rugby to local schoolchildren, as well as holding a rugby clinic for recently formed rugby clubs in the area. Simon says he is really looking forward to this opportunity. “When we were first invited to play in the Cancun Sevens, I immediately thought it was an incredible opportunity for the Club to travel to one of the fastest growing rugby nations and, not only compete in the tournament, but also strengthen interest in rugby as a whole in the area. It is also fantastic that we are able to take both our men’s and women’s squads. The women’s game is certainly growing in popularity globally and to be able to do a joint tour is a huge step forward. I think both squads are excited to play in the tournament but also to experience a new culture and develop rugby for future generations in Mexico.”
This will be the second time the Club has been to the Cancun Sevens. In 2009 a young Blackheath Development Squad travelled to Mexico to play in the tournament’s second year of existence. In the week before the tournament the Blackheath squad, with the help of a British charity, the Tag Rugby Trust, coached rugby in schools in the area, including Mayan village schools in the Yucatan jungle.
Blackheath, founded in 1858, was hugely influential in the development of the sport of Rugby Football from its early history. Many of the laws and tactics of the game have come from those adopted by the Club in the early days. Now the oldest open rugby club is travelling to support one of the newest and fastest growing rugby nations.
Rugby was first played in Mexico during the 1930s by British and foreign oil workers but disappeared after the Mexican expropriation of foreign oil assets in 1938. It surfaced again in 1971 when a Briton, Walter Irvine, founded the Mexican Rugby Union. In ten years the membership rose to 14 senior and 7 junior clubs, but dropped away to near extinction when he and his son retired from the organisation. In 2003 a group of enthusiasts founded the Federacion Mexicana de Rugby (FMRU). Since then Mexico has become one of the fastest rugby developing nations and the fastest rising nation in the World Rugby rankings. In 2003 only 400 players were involved in the game. Now the FMRU presides over a playing membership of more than 12,500. The number of clubs and teams playing rugby has risen from 35 in 2009 to around 300 today.
As well as the strongest Mexican club sides, teams from the United States will be among those contesting the Cancun Sevens title and Simon Legg says he is looking forward to coming up against strong opposition from there. “There are some exceptional teams in the tournament from North America. It is clear that the region is rapidly becoming a rising force in world rugby as demonstrated by Blackheath coach Mike Friday’s US Eagles, who have qualified for the Olympics in a very closely fought race. Mike has done an exceptional job with the Eagles and we are very excited to have him back at the Club. In the Women’s competition, Blackheath will face the Mexican national side, the ‘Serpientes,’ who still have the chance of qualifying for the Olympics. So the standard will be very strong in both competitions.”
The Chair of Blackheath’s Women’s Rugby Section, Clare Walsh, will be playing in the tournament and she says that the Women’s squad is relishing the prospect of its first tour to Mexico. “Blackheath Women’s Rugby Section is excited to be able to contribute to the development of rugby in Mexico through our participation in the tournament and our engagement with local schools. Canada getting to last year’s Women’s World Cup Final shows that rugby is growing in both strength and popularity in North America and we are happy to see increased women’s participation in this year’s Cancun Sevens as a further demonstration of that. We expect competition to be hard and have trained accordingly and hope the skills we have developed through our success in being one of the top two teams in our League in recent seasons shines through.”
The Cancun Sevens Tournament takes place this Saturday 27th June at the El Rey Polo Club between Cancun and Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya.