By Steve Lewis
This weekend in Grand Cayman sees the North American regional qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. For the Men, win and you’re in, for the Women, thanks to some world-class, World Rugby chicanery (more on that below), the top two finishers move on to the repechage tournament next year, probably in Europe.
I will be there coaching the Crocs and the Lady Crocs, the Jamaican Men and Women as they follow their Olympic dreams, and what a story it would be if this Caribbean nation could make it to Japan just over a year from now. The Mens competition features Jamaica, Cayman, Guyana, and Trinidad & Tobago in one group, with Canada, Bermuda. Mexico and Barbados in the other. With Mike Friday’s (USA) Eagles having automatically qualified after their stellar World Series season, Canada are the prohibitive favorites in this tournament, the only professional squad here,and with five months together before this weekend, no savvy gambler would bet against them. But it is 7’s, and the game is played on grass, not paper!
The Jamaican team, will have only 5 practices together before the weekend as the squad is comprised of two distinct groups, domestic Jamaican players and exiles from the diaspora, in this case the UK. But they do have talent and have been the dominant Caribbean team of late, qualifying for last years World Cup in San Francisco, this years Hong Kong tournament, and the upcoming Pan Am games in Lima, Peru. They will be looking to continue that regional dominance to ensure a crack at the Canucks in the final on Sunday afternoon. A ticket to Tokyo would be theultimate reward for Jamaica, an island whose athletic DNA is never in question, and who could be a competitive force in World 7’s in short order. I grew up when the West Indies’ Calypso Kings dominated world cricket, and while they are no longer top dogs at the crease, they punch well above their weight in track and field. American rugby has always been obsessed with crossover athletes, and in Jamaica, track and field is where they are, some of the fastest humans on the planet won’t crack the Jamaican Olympic sprint squad, but if they can just catch a ball…. The financial struggle is real however, government funding of sport is minimal, the game remains a niche one on the island, and despite the indefatigable efforts of JRFU Chairman Jerry Benzwick, 7’s program manager Bruce Martin, and the UK-based Hughton Campbell, sponsors are hard to come by.
This lack of resources extends to the Womensteam with no home facility, transport issues, kit issues, and life’s daily challenges light years away from the experience that Womensplayers have in Tier 1 countries. The Lady Crocs will face Mexico, Bermuda, Bahamas, Trinidad & Tobago, and St. Lucia in their battle to advance, with the United States and Canada already qualified due to finishing in the top four of the World Series. Which brings us back to World Rugby, who altered their own qualification rules AFTER the start of the competitive cycle, when it became clear that the two North American behemoths would qualify. So now, Rugby Americas North (RAN) is the ONLY region without an automatic qualifier, inexplicable and inexcusable, given that Oceania, where Australia and New Zealand also qualified through the same process at the same World Series, retain theirs. Sporting colonialism is alive and well and there for all to see in this decision, and as they say in Kingston, “if it not go so, it go near so”
So for Jamaica and other Caribbean countries,who will always struggle on the world stage at fifteens, but who could EXCEL at 7’s, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do you need resources to realize your potential and get a result, or do you need a result first to get the attention that gets you the resources?Either way, multiple teams will be looking for a result this weekend, and I wish all those competing a safe and rewarding weekend, and someday soon, the resources to unlock all that Jamaican and Caribbean rugby potential.
Copyright Steve Lewis 2019