For Brazil’s rugby sevens teams, heart now outshines the ability

Brazilian rugby sevens programme aims for respectable 2016 Rio Games showing.
Brazil’s Martin Schaefer, left, looks to pass as France’s Julien Candelon tackles him during their match at the Dubai Rugby Sevens, which served as a leg of the Sevens World Series. The top four nations at the end of the series will qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics. Karim Sahib / AFP
Brazil’s Martin Schaefer, left, looks to pass as France’s Julien Candelon tackles him during their match at the Dubai Rugby Sevens, which served as a leg of the Sevens World Series. The top four nations at the end of the series will qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics. Karim Sahib / AFP

There was something disconcerting about watching Brazil play at the Dubai Rugby Sevens this weekend, and it was not hard to figure out why: Green shorts.

Without the famous blue below their yellow shirts, Brazil appeared less like South Americans and more like a rough-and-tumble Australia.

Perhaps they are simply aligning themselves with success. While Australia has long excelled with an oblong ball, Brazil is hardly renowned for its rugby talent. However, the Confederacao Brasileira de Rugby (CBRu) intend to change that perception.

With Rugby Sevens set to make its Olympic Games debut in 2016, and with Rio de Janeiro serving as host city, Brazil’s two teams are the only sides to have qualified so far for the world’s most-watched sports event.

The International Rugby Board knows it needs the host country’s men’s and women’s squads to be competitive and have committed to annually invest around US$200,000 (Dh720,000) into the CBRu. Last year, they reportedly pumped close to double that amount into the country’s game.

Brazil’s training facilities on the outskirts of Sao Paulo remain basic, but the level of performance is slowly improving. This weekend, the CBRu brought both its national sevens teams to Dubai, where the men made their regional debuts and the women returned for a fourth straight year.

The women’s team, nicknamed “Os Yaras” after a Tupi Indian heroine, lost all three games on Thursday in a tough pool with Canada, Fiji and World Cup winners England. On Friday, though, they rallied to win the Bowl, the tournament for third- and fourth-place finishers from each pool.

Coach Chris Neill, a New Zealander who formerly trained the Canterbury men’s sevens side, appeared frustrated at times in his technical area, but was ultimately pleased after overseeing victories against Spain and South Africa.

“It’s the first time the girls have ever beaten either of those teams, so it will give them a lot of self-belief and they deserve kudos for that,” Neill said. “It’s a big learning curve, but they are slowly getting there.”

Where exactly “there” is remains debatable. Neill says he does not set targets, preferring to focus on performance, but he intimated that he would like to see his team qualify for the last eight of Rio’s 12-team tournament.

Simon Middleton, the England women’s coach, said it is possible.

“They have a great programme in place, are incredibly progressive and have huge desire,” said Middleton, whose side beat Brazil 29-7. “This time last year, most of us would have put 40, maybe even 50, points on Brazil, but their improvement is clear.

“I don’t think they profess to be a top-six side, but potentially, they can be top eight or nine.

“To come from their base, that would be a great achievement.”

The Brazil women are in a period of transition, embracing a specific style of play, with expansive passing and more patient build-up. It was clear in spells against South Africa that the lessons are getting through and Beatriz Futuro, the team captain, spoke of “learning step-by-step”, “being more competitive” and “showing to Brazil that we deserve to be there in 2016”.

The men’s team face a similar challenge. They lost all five of their games over the weekend, but those involved were quick to denounce results as irrelevant at this stage of the Olympic journey.

Having recruited Andres Romagnoli as coach in June, the Brazilian men are at the beginning of their route to Rio, and Dubai was a means of gaining both experience and playing in front of large crowds.

“We felt the support for Brazil,” half-back Felipe Claro said. “We are an underdog and the crowd always supports an underdog. Also, because we are hosting the Olympics, people tend to support us more and more.

“Every time we play, we notice more attention and we hope that continues as we improve and start winning.”

If Brazil want to attract more attention, a switch from green shorts to blue may help. However, Claro said it is unlikely.

“We would like to,” he said. “We wore blue shorts once at a tournament in England and we finished third. It was the Middlesex Sevens, but afterwards we were told off and we have never been allowed to wear them since. I don’t know why.”

For now, Brazil are garnering support, regardless.

Joao Neto, a Brazilian pilot who has lived in the UAE for seven years, came to the Sevens to watch rugby for the first time. He did not understand the rules, but was keen to learn.

“Rugby is not a traditional game in Brazil, but it’s getting bigger,” Neto said from the sidelines of Pitch One. “The teams are obviously under big pressure. I could see some of the girls in tears after they lost.

“The good thing is, Brazilians are very supportive of their country, so as long they try and do a good job, they will get the recognition they deserve.”

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Published: December 7, 2014 04:00 AM

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