Rugby and Turks

As rugby world Cup 2011 rages on in New Zealand, Turkey, which is generally more concerned with football and, to a decent extent, basketball, would seem to be blissfully unaware of what is going on half a world away, but is that the case?

Is the world of rugby really leaving Turkey behind?

Though it is widely eclipsed by the world of football, rugby is gradually becoming a widespread game and is the national sport of New Zealand, South Africa, Wales, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Madagascar. The Rugby World Cup was first held jointly in Australia and New Zealand, two of the game’s giants, in 1987 and has been held in true World Cup-fashion every four years since.

This year’s New Zealand tournament marks the seventh embodiment of the competition, which is attended by 20 teams. Twelve of those — Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, Tonga and Wales — qualified by finishing in the top three in their pools in World Cup 2007, and the remaining eight — Canada, Georgia, Japan, Namibia, Romania, Russia, Samoa and the United States — won regional qualification competitions.

Twelve of these 20 have participated in every World Cup to date, and the only newcomer this year is Russia, which replaced Portugal in the only change to the lineup for this tournament.

The fact that the same countries are sticking around may make it seem like a fairly exclusive club, but it is a relatively new competition, and in just seven tournaments four teams have managed to take home the title. Australia and South Africa have each won twice, and England and New Zealand have one championship apiece. Plus, France has made it to the finals twice and three more teams — Wales, Argentina and Scotland — have made it to the semis.

That actually makes for a reasonable distribution of titles considering the age of the tournament and the fact that, unlike football, which has crept into every corner of the globe, rugby has a narrow distribution.

A smattering of rugby across the globe

So why is Turkey not even on the radar in rugby, while Georgia, Samoa and a mess of smaller countries are playing in the World Cup? The answer has to do with the history of the sport.

Rugby was founded in England and spread from there, though not necessarily everywhere. It is reported that the game was carried abroad mainly by the English and french as they explored and colonized distant lands. However, only the areas occupied by the French really got into it at first, as the French encouraged locals to participate in matches and play with them. On the other hand, the English discouraged locals from playing and did not give them a chance to advance.

Beyond UK teams like Scotland, England and Ireland, in addition to Australia and New Zealand, one will notice that many old French colonies have caught the rugby bug, though over time development and popularity have been slightly skewed.

Turkey was never a French colony and some of the earliest rugby in Anatolia was played by Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) soldiers, who fought the Turks at Gallipoli at the beginning of the 1900s and, until very recently, has been slow to catch on with Turks.

Former Broncos and Warriors winger Denan Kemp is probably the only Rugby player known to have some Turkish background. Although Rugby is perhaps one of the most loved sports among Turkish Australians, nothing beats the love of Soccer; soccer from Turkish homeland. Australian-Turkish are encouraged to support their parents’ (most likely their fathers’) favourite soccer team; either Galatasaray, Fenerbahce or Besiktas, very rarely Trabzonspor that is unless you have some Black Sea heritage. And then comes the grandparents’ team; which is usually a smaller club representing your ancestry. If you are from Denizli or Kayseri, your second team would be Denizlispor or Kayseri respectively.

Turkish Rugby 1st League 2013-2014 Final game Kadıköy Ragbi SK – ODTÜ SK

Turkish Rugby 1st League 2013-2014 Final game Kadıköy Ragbi SK – ODTÜ SK

The first contact of Turks with Rugby took place during WWI thanks to the ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli. Australian and New Zealand Army soldiers are known to play rugby on Turkish soil. Turks first contact with modern football (soccer) also came around that time (beginning of 20th century, thanks to Galatasaray, found in 1905). Galatasaray’s players fought against ANZACs at Gallipoli while Fenerbahce players beat Invading British and French army teams in Istanbul during the period.

Since that time Turks built a national team that enjoyed 3rd spot in the World Cup (2002),3rd spot in the Confederations Cup (2004), 3rd spot in the European Championship (2006) and Galatasaray won 2 European championships; UEFA Cup in 1999 and Super Cup in 2000. However things were not as exciting at Rugby level.

There were university teams, playing American style grid-iron in Ankara at Bilkent and Baskent Universities during 1990s however these were perceived as “spoiled rich kids wanting to play an American sport (or bringing the sport with them after a visit to US)”. This perception did not help either. The university rugby league is still popular among a small fraction of elite universities.

Turkey’s first rugby team, the Istanbul Ottomans was founded in 1999 by Marc Mercier, Dennis Ponds de Vier (both French expats)and Chris Skirrow. Its initial games were against foreign teams until more Turkey-based teams sprung up and the league was born in 2007.

The Ottomans were soon followed by the Girne Pumas (based in Northern Cyprus), Kadiköy Rugby, Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) Rugby — the reigning champion -– and Bakirköy Rugby, among others. According to Turkish Rugby Federation Secretary-General Metin Ejder, the Rugby Federation is a brand new development, as rugby was governed by the Turkish Federation for Baseball, Softball, American Football and Rugby (TBSF) until this year.

Turkish Rugby finding its wings

According to Turkish Rugby federation Secretary-General Metin Ejder, the Rugby Federation is a brand new development, as rugby was governed by the Turkish Federation for Baseball, Softball, American Football and Rugby (TBSF) until this year.

The young federation is not yet affiliated with the International Rugby Board (IRB), although they recently applied to become a member of the Dublin-based organization and expect to receive a response in October.

Unilig Games Antalya Belek

Unilig Games Antalya Belek

Ejder said the national rugby team was founded in 2009 and recently signed a new coach, Irishman Niall Doherty, who previously led the Greek national team.

“We are going to meet in France this October,” he said. “There we are going to gather those who play rugby abroad and make our national team, making selections from the Turkish athletes who play outside of the country. Also, 14 rugby teams participated in the İstanbul Sevens Tournament and there were also many Turks who came to that, too. They told us they wanted to play [so we can also select from them],” he added.

As far as the rugby league goes, Ejder noted that there were currently 12 teams in the men’s league. The only other official rugby league in Turkey is the university league. As at least eight teams are necessary to form a true league and there are only four women’s teams, women’s rugby consists only of tournaments.

In addition to the new federation, Turkish rugby has in the past few years begun to organize international competitions. The second annual İstanbul Rugby Sevens tournament was held on May 14-15. The Kuşadası Eagles also host an annual rugby tournament open to Turkish and international teams.

2016-2017 Turkish Iron Grid final

2016-2017 Turkish Iron Grid final

Things are starting to look up for Turkish rugby, although it has been slow to take root in the country, it is slowly coming together and connecting to the international rugby world.

After the newly created Turkish Rugby Federation becomes a member of the IRB, the nation will be eligible to participate in official international competitions. The team’s goal is to enter the 2016 Olympic Games, while an IRB membership will allow them to enter qualifying for the World Cup. Although Turkey is late in getting into the sport, we may soon see the Turks compete in the Olympics and, in four or eight years, perhaps even the World Cup.

Perhaps one day, we will be seeing Aussie rugby players  play in Turkish league. After all, the country has been a hotspot for Aussie soccer players such as Harry Kewell and Lucas Neill and Aussie athletes of Turkish background like Ersan Gulum, Tanser Baser and Ufuk Talay learned their sports here but ended up playing in top level in Turkey.

We will keep dreaming.

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