Conquistadors find ‘rugby is a common language, and you can travel the world with it’

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ANTANANARIVO // The resident bull was coaxed off the playing area. Most of the lines were painted on in time, even if they were still damp at kick-off.

And, despite the police’s ban on public gatherings in the wake of a grenade attack last week, there were even some supporters in the concrete stands of the Stade Malacam.

Some wore the colours of Abu Dhabi Harlequins. And one of the home team players arrived wearing a Dubai Hurricanes shirt.

That might seem a surreal thought, 5,000kms away from the UAE. Given the randomness of this chaotic city, though, it barely merited a second look.

After a week in which their senses had been assaulted by Antananarivo, the Air Seychelles Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors finally got what they came here for. Namely, a match against the Madagascan national team.

It did not run quite to script. They tourists from the Arabian Gulf lost 52-26 to an uninhibited young team, the overwhelming majority of whose points started off near their own tryline.

Within a couple of passes, and a length of the field dash, they were in under the Conquistadors’ posts. It was punishing stuff.

If this is how rugby is played in these parts, then the future is Africa. And, thanks to the Mike Ballard Foundation and its travelling band of rugby missionaries, that future is so much brighter for scores of young players in Madagascar after a week of unremitting goodness.

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“We want games like this every year,” Victor-Lie Andriavelomanana, the president of the Madagascan Rugby Federation, said.

“This was the only time a touring team like this have come to play us this year. It is important as it helps us to improve our performance.”

The Conquistadors would happily make this an annual fixture, if invited. Even if some of their ageing limbs will probably still be aching 12 months hence.

They had hoped their rugby nous would win out against the Makis, who take their nickname from the French word for a ring-tailed lemur that is native to these parts.

But they had surrendered a 33-0 half-time deficit before they were able to think about bringing that experience to bear.

At least they can claim to have won the second half, 26-19, thanks to tries from Adam Wallace, Ed Lewsey, Winston Cowie, and Harry Seward, the young cub of the tour party, who was outstanding after his half-time introduction.

“It was tough. In the first five minutes the altitude took an effect and it wasn’t something we had factored in,” Cowie said.

“The rugby was so fast. It was a real introduction to African rugby. Every time we turned it over, within a couple of passes they were in under the sticks.

“We first saw these guys on YouTube a couple of months ago when we were looking for somewhere to go for a goodwill mission.

“The country is rugby-mad. We have come here, we have achieved what we set out to do. We hope this is a two-way thing and that something really positive for Madagascar rugby can come out of it, too.”

Tom Calnan, the Conquistadors wing, was playing his first 15-a-side match in two years. Now 39, he said it had been a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“I was slightly apprehensive,” Calnan said. “I came to the Gulf sevens years ago, aged 32, thinking that my best rugby was behind me.

“When they gave me the call this time, yes I had a think about it, but at the end of the day you don’t get opportunities like this very often. I thought, why not? This game has been a fantastic experience.”

Lewsey’s passport has some peculiar stamps in it thanks to rugby. He travelled to Uzbekistan as the scrumhalf for the UAE national team two months ago, but he said touring Madagascar was a unique experience.

“The biggest difference has been the fact most of the rugby we play is in developed nations,” Lewsey said.

“We saw when we handed out the boots how much in means to them. These kids have nothing. They run around with a pair of shorts and a ball, and that is about it.

“They are tough. The thing about rugby is it is a common language, and you can travel the world with it.

“Here, it has united a load of random expats from the Gulf, and a load of Madagascan people, and it has been wonderful to see.”

Ballard, who – according to the final verse of the Conquistadors team song - is the inspiration for this goodwill tour, said the team’s experiences in Madagascar have gone far beyond what they anticipated.

“It has really exceeded expectations in each category,” said Ballard, who reroutes the resources raised for his own rehabilitation from a broken back to other worthy causes via his foundation.

“The reception we got from Madagascar rugby has been unbelievable. The level of play from the kids at the coaching clinic was unbelievable. To see how grateful they were at the orphanage when we dropped off the wheelchairs, it is really just tough to describe.

“To finish with a match against the No 42 side in the world, and to still be in it with 10 minutes to go, when it looked like we were going to close the gap, what more could you ask for?”

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