With Nigeria set to become the first African nation to be accorded affiliate status by the IRL members, and an initial return to play being signalled on the continent, rugby league looks to be on the rise in Africa.
Hopes are that if continued progress can be made, enough nations from the continent will be part of the qualification process for the 2025 World Cup.
Abbey Olawale-Cole, the Nigerian Rugby League Association chairman said of their elevation: “Without a lot of hard work and personal sacrifices from theboard of directors and trustees, and commitment from the players, referees and other stakeholders, the NRLA wouldn’t be in this position, so thanks to all who made this dream a reality.
“We are committed to the sustainable development of rugby league in Nigeria, growing our youth and women talent pool beyond the north to thesouthern region, ensuring that the grassroots gets the right level of engagement and support, and ultimately avoiding repeating the same mistakes, so as to ensure we are on a constant path to growth.”
The Nigerians won the 2019 four nation MEA Championship, which was hosted in their capital, Lagos.
In Burundi, the governing body has managed to complete the first part of an elite competition for both men and women in Mutumba Karuzi.
According to BRL XIII president Jean de Christophe Rusiga: “Due to Covid-19, many of our members have moved to the countryside, where they can find enough food for their confinement.
“So, by proposing three games per region, we have managed to restart our activities in Mutumba and Gitega.
“In Mutumba, more than 350 young people were involved, and we hope to meet the same numbers in Gitega and Bujumbura.
“We came back at our HQ with 16 selected for the national team and eight for the junior team for the men, and 20 young ladies,] who will have to follow a special training for their acceptance into the national team.”
The BRL XIII intend to start the second elite leg in Gitega, at the University of Burundi Faculte d'Agronomie, and held match official courses held via Zoom in the interim.
“We intend to also start up in the Commune Mukaza,” Rusiga confirms. “We wish to implement a structure with two clubs initially that has three sections: men’s and women’s seniors, juniors and kids, together with a wellbeing programme concentrating on fighting hunger and nutrition issues in our different communities.
“It's very important for our members to see that we care for the future in and out of the game and that they understand the real value of rugby league in their communities.”
He adds: “As long as the development funds are not arriving, we have to find local solutions to keep players on our fields, bearing in mind that our power of purchase is the lowest in the world and poverty and hunger are our number one enemy.
“It is necessary to understand that that reason could be a barrier to the development of rugby league, and the reason for coming in Mutumba is because there’s a culture of warriors and hunters that can still be felt in young people.”
In Morocco, leading side Salé Silverbacks has gradually resumed junior training, following strict sanitary regulations, leading to full contact.
“This is one of my best experiences,” said newcomer Achraf Hanchi, who slipped into the hooking role.
The idea of creating a club in Salé was the result of a conversation between Jody Freeman, founder of the South London Silverbacks and his counterpart Souhail Ait Alla, which saw the generous donation of kit from the English capital.
“As an ex-rugby union player, practicing rugby league in my town was a dream granted by Salé Silverbacks, I’m glad for my conversion,” claimed second rower Amine Soufiane.
Ait Alla confirms: “The first games for our boys in the north saw us play Nador Arkman, whist in the south, Bozakarn RL faced Afgharich Tantan.
“That was in the middle of March and then the pandemic struck. A lot of other projects were in the planning but put on hold, including a Magic Weekend to be hosted by Salé.
“We decided all members of the Moroccan RL Federation should stay in contact on Zoom, sharing information, ideas and programmes for the future including a competition between the best players in the north and those from the south.
“The first official referee courses on-line were given by Hamza Afouks.”
In Cameroon, a North, Central and Littoral men’s championships are about to start featuring seven teams: Sahel RL de Garoua, Air Garoua, Bulls RL, Panda RL, Rock RL, Guepard RL and Gorila RL.
Four of those clubs will run a women’s championship and five are set to compete in the youth competition.
In December the CRL XIII has planned a social event around visiting an orphanage and there will be men’s and women’s Origin matches.
Cameroon were the stars of last year’s MEA Championship, with incredible stories of the lengths they went to in order to play.
Ghana RL, particularly active in their university sector, has also begun their return to on field activity.
Members were given two options; for clubs to train from October to November and play in a friendly event in December, or train for rest of the year and start all over in 2021.
They opted for the first one choice and are set to resume a full programme for both male and female players.
In the past 10 years, the Middle East Africa region has grown from really only including South Africa – where the sport began in the 1960s - and Lebanon, separated by almost 10,000km, to now 12 different nations active and more on the horizon.
Taking on the role of leaders, the South Africans – who were set to hold the 2020 MEA Championship at Tuks in Pretoria until its inevitable cancellation - are supporting coaching, match official and other development initiatives.
Remond Safi is the Rugby League European Federation officer responsible for the region. “It has been exhilarating overseeing the MEA growth,” he notes.
“The region is looking great with the increase in activity and other new nations looking to establish the sport - MEA will be a future powerhouse, with plenty of untapped talent coming from the region.
“We are actively looking at the possibility of establishing a new confederation, with a working group established to examine all the requirements.”
Safi can also see rich future rewards in the Middle East and Africa becoming an integral part of future World Cups.
“Looking forward to 2025, I can see some of the nations making an impact. South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Morocco could emerge quite quickly due to the amount of experienced, heritage players that they could call upon from France, Australia and the UK in support of their own domestic talent.”