Rugby in Iran: Growing the game
At a recent Asia Rugby Growing The Game conference in Malaysia, we had the chance to sit down with Ridzal Saat, World Rugby Services Manager for Asia. Specifically, we talked about his recent trip to Iran to asses rugby within the country. However, we also talked about rugby legacy, the growth of the women’s game and his thoughts on the development of the global game.
Despite Iran being in the media global spotlight politically, and the country currently under renewed pressure and sanctions, rugby continues to grow despite all obstacles.
There are rugby programmes in 20 out of its 30 provinces and in 2018, rugby development of Iran reached was third in Asia and fifth in the world. The Women’s Rugby Development Committee of Iran also won the Asia Rugby – Women’s Rugby Development Award 2018.
Who is Ridzal Saat?
Ridzal has been working for World Rugby and with Rugby Member Unions in Asia and the regional body of Asia Rugby to “strengthen, grow and inspire the development of the game in Asia” since 2014.
He has held several positions with Singapore Rugby, as Head of Rugby, General Manager and a national team player from 1993-2001.
As a player he won the Asian Rugby Championship 2nd Division twice in 1998 and 2000 and the South East Asian Games Bronze Medal in 1995. In addition, he represented Singapore 7s in the Hong Kong 7s, Dubai 7s (Rugby World Cup Qualifiers), Fiji 7s and Sri Lanka 7s amongst others.
He also spent nearly 4 years with the Football Association of Singapore.
When did you go and what was the main purpose of the visit?
I recently visited Iran, at the start of May 2019. In Asia, there are now 23 Associate and Full Member Unions with World Rugby out of 31 linked to Asia Rugby. Iran has been an Associate Member since 2011. We have a representative World Rugby Service Manager for each region like Oceania and Asia etc.
It was an official Union visit of the Iran Rugby Federation as they have been trying to apply for full World Rugby Membership and there are some criteria they haven’t yet met, so we helped asses those. I also went to visit the Olympic and National Sports Council to affirm our support of them as a rugby federation and allow them to show us where rugby is at, in Iran.
Can you explain the terms of Associate Members and Full Members?
In terms of membership pathways, A Rugby Union needs to be first an Associate Member of a registered association. In Asia, they have to be an Associate Member of Asia Rugby for two years before they can apply to be a full member of Asia Rugby. Then, they need to complete one year before they can apply to be an Associate Member of World Rugby, then after one more year can apply for Full Membership of World Rugby.
Obviously, the different stages have criteria they need to fulfil. They need to have a recognised governing body, the country is a member of the NOC (National Olympic Committee) or United Nations constitution, provide financial statements, certain bylaws and anti-doping compliance etc.
Within rugby, World Rugby Associate Members need to have the presence of a national rugby team that has competed in regional competition (15s), although there is some more flexibility now with 7s rugby. We asses across the country where they are with rugby. It is hard for smaller Unions to focus on too many things, instead, they focus on one or two areas.
We also look for a domestic rugby program that supports the national team – we don’t want just a country with a national team and nothing else. So for Associate Members, the criteria are to have a men’s domestic 15s competition, we are however reviewing these with women’s rugby. For a Full Membership, they should also have a men’s and women’s 7s national teams etc.
Iran has been a World Rugby Associate Member since 2011, and similar to many countries in their position, you appreciate the costs involved to have 15s and 7s rugby teams and to have them travel to tournaments. For me, I think it’s not really appreciated until I get to visit some of these countries and see what’s involved on the ground.
So since the trip, Iran has been in the news with sanctions and politics, which make the conditions for rugby development even more difficult. Tell us about your expectations and impressions of Iran, as this was your 1st trip there?
We all grow up if we don’t travel extensively, reading what the news presents to us – who is the bad guy and who is the good guy. I didn’t know what to expect, even practical things like if they accept credit cards (which I couldn’t use) or foreign currencies due to the travel ban and visa restrictions.
So I went from a meeting in Dubai to Iran and I also had to buy insurance on entering the country (an Iranian rule). But I was greeted at the airport by Nahid Biyarjomandi, Head of Women’s Development in Iran and the women’s national team coach and one of 15 women featured in the World Rugby Try And Stop Us campaign and Ali, who is the son of the Iran Rugby President, Dr Hassan, and volunteering his time to help.
I arrived on a Thursday (their weekend) and on Friday we went around to explore a few areas. I found them to be very friendly people and people approached me and talked to me in cafes and the local bazaar.
I went to one area where they had a 200-meter stretch by a park, people playing basketball, futsal and volleyball, I suppose as you could find in any country! It is interesting to think the idea you construct in your head and what you see – doesn’t connect.
And your views on Tehran?
Tehran looked like any city in Asia. There was Korean pop playing, funky cafes and western music. I feel like it’s really important to spread this message, as this job can get emotional sometimes, and see things first hand was important.
Iran rugby development
And what did you discuss in terms of rugby in Iran?
I first attended a meeting the Iran National Olympic Council and they also have a Federation of Sports association. In attendance were Mr Shahrok Shahnazi, the Secretary-General of the NOC of Iran and Mr Gholam Ali Mohamad Alipour, the President of Sports Associations of Islamic Republic of Iran and Member of I.R. Iran NOC.
For them, it really meant a lot to have an Asia Rugby or World Rugby official visit them, or any international body, to meet heads of their organisations. I think we sometimes tend to undervalue that.
It changed the way I think about my role too and they were very welcoming and appreciative.
I had a good meeting with sporting bodies. We talked about (this was before the women’s rugby campaign) launching the Try And Stop Us campaign and we knew from previous member visits, that there was a fair amount of rugby in Iran, but they have limited means of travelling with the ongoing sanctions.
It became a discussion that World Rugby could provide more support if they become a full member.
These were the items discussed according to the Iran Rugby Federation:
- Iran Rugby Associations proposed an application to be a Full Member of World Rugby
- The NOC’s support for the development of the game, including possibly allocating applications for Olympic Solidarity Funding
- Mr Shahnazi said that Iran Rugby Association is one of the more proactive sports association in terms of developing the game of rugby in schools.
- Mr Shahnazi also said that the I.R. Iran NOC will provide increased levels of support for the Iran Rugby Association once they become a full member of World Rugby
- Ridzal mentioned that both World Rugby and Asia Rugby recognition of IRA efforts to grow the game in the country.
- Iran’s National Teams have been successful in recent competitions in West Asia for both Men’s and Women’s and two delegates are due to attend a T & E-Course in Malaysia in June.
- Ridzal said that it was unfortunate that Iran did not take part in the 2018 Asian Games as well as the recent Asia Rugby Competition in Qatar due to financial challenges.
- Ridzal also shared with Mr Shahnazi and Mr Ali that Iran is one of 15 countries to be selected as part of World Rugby’s Global Marketing Campaign for Women’s Rugby.
- This campaign launched in May and Nahid will be one of the 15 Female Players from around the world that have been selected for this campaign.
Were there any specific areas you can tell us that Iran needs to improve?
The challenge in Iran is administrative. They have 1-2 people trying to do a lot. We don’t want a rugby Union to struggle to maintain their status. They have had a 12 team competition before, but had issues with money and getting teams to travel to a competition to play and maintain the league.
It also depends on their discussions with Asia Rugby as a regional body also has to support the application for a Full Membership. It’s still ongoing.
And we were working with Iran to complete forms which are key, language is a challenge. But in terms of compliance with Asia Rugby, they have submitted their documentation this year. So even a country like Iran, where English is not a first language. and they are able to do it, so hand on heart, I can say that every country’s Federation should be able to do it.
There is a support network?
Yes, I think increasingly in an isolated digital world, things like emails can be misread, and like I say, if English is not a first language, Skype meetings with a translator and these face to face meetings help.
Yes, and I had previously seen publications, as Dr Hassan (President of the Iran Rugby Federation) publishes a sports magazine, which you can feel and touch which is nice. And they have published rugby specific content.
It was held near the National Stadium I think, and they had a beach rugby pitch (as well as volleyball).
The Championships featured 9 participating teams. If I was still playing, I wouldn’t have wanted to play at the level of competition they had.
Teams travelled long distances and the games were tough with hard games, great Sonny Bill Williams offloads and strong tackling.
Did they have women’s and men’s at the beach tournament?
No, they only had men’s, the country is very strict that way. You won’t find the teams mix, it is separated.
But at this tournament, they even broadcast the games live and I was interviewed as well which was impressive.
(Editor’s Note- The final game of the Championship was televised live over a Cable TV Channel and the State National Television reported on the event. Both Dr Hassan and Ridzal was interviewed.)
Lots of @SonnyBWilliams like offloading and big hits at the @IranRugby 6th Annual Beach Rugby Festival but the players always shake each other’s hands at the end of each game. #passion #solidarity @asiarugby @WorldRugby pic.twitter.com/wXjy4OYowM
— ridzal saat (@r4ridzy) May 4, 2019
Women’s rugby in Iran
This past weekend we heard from another Iranian female player and coach. The statistics we hear from Iran are impressive. She said there are more than 2000 female rugby players in Iran, more than 20 Sevens women’s rugby teams, they have six 15s rugby women’s teams. So aside from the obstacles we know of, what did you see of women’s rugby in Iran?
There were a few things; Nahid who travelled with me on my visit and is involved with women’s rugby development and coaching in Iran…..
Were there any complications with the two of you travelling together?
But they took me to visit three women’s club teams who were training together and at a fairly high level, at least it looked like it to me. The quality of passing, kicking etc was all of a very high standard.
The lady here at the conference, while I was in Iran, she attended a committee meeting I was at. I had an opportunity to speak to them and them with me about challenges and successes and to air what they think if Iran becomes a World Rugby Full Member, but this lady came to the meeting by bus for 8 hours for a half-day meeting, you can’t doubt the commitment.
There is a real passion for the game.
“This year, like in recent years in Iran, we held a national championship for U15s, U18s and senior 7s and fifteens,” Biyarjomandi told Asia Rugby.
What were your biggest takeaways from the time in Iran on how Iran can grow the game and the women’s game?
I think from my perspective, and in my role with World Rugby, we need to work with these federations that cant move to the next level of membership, to see how best we can service them. Resources are limited and there are increasing demands from more federations. As the Malaysian Rugby President addressed us here in KL at the Growing the Game Conference, we have to move away from the culture of “What can you do for us”.
But we can also support in non-financial ways, my biggest takeaway in Iran is, the rugby is real on the ground, the commitment is real. They are genuinely very proud and welcoming of guests.
Even with my work, I don’t have the luxury of visiting all of the Unions and you can take things for granted. These people were travelling a long way just to train!
In 2018, Iran won the Asia Rugby Development Award for women’s rugby, Do you know what this was based on?
These awards ask the Unions for nominations, and in Iran, in the last 12-18 months it has been very eye-opening for Asia Rugby and World Rugby- we have had some members visit Iran and we felt they were punching above their weight to make things happen.
We want to help them develop systems and get them to understand it can’t be 1-2 people doing everything, it needs to be a team making things happen.
Rugby World Cup 2019
It’s less than 100 days to RWC 2019. There has been a big emphasis on the legacy. Every Asia Rugby Union we have heard from, thinks it will have a positive impact. What do you think will be the real legacy- as you say the funding will still be limited. Is it awareness? What’s the big win?
For me, I think I am lucky and privileged to be working in this sport.
I was working in football for a long time. But now I think I will be in rugby forever and I have grown in world-experience. I think the big win is the Asian Rugby Unions working together better, and you wouldn’t have some of them sitting in the same room together only a few years ago.
Rugby is a sport or platform to improve youngsters, off and on the pitch. People say there is a feel-good factor but I think its real. Having the World Cup in Asia and Japan, and the Olympics, these are 2 platforms for us to be connected.
The legacy will be a generation of younger people really pushing the game forward in their countries.
Japan doesn’t get enough positive shout outs, but they have sent coaches to Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan, speaking the local languages and teaching rugby. It’s really a change agent, the drivers are the real legacy of this.
Growing The Game – Asia Rugby
And this past weekend we have seen how many volunteers are making things happen, and the sacrifices they have made to grow the game. It has been refreshing.
That’s a good point. And we try to tell the Rugby Unions, that passion, blood, guts will really push the game, but they also need to take a step back and see if they can professionalise some positions, like a CEO or head of rugby. Otherwise, you can’t push forward in this modern world of sports management, that’s a reality.
Maybe if the volunteer has a lot of money, but it’s not sustainable. And development is not sexy. We want to empower Unions with the limited resources they have and ensure that they work towards a full-time complement of staff. That would be a huge success.
(Growing the Game Conference– was the 4th edition of its of the GTG conference in Kuala Lumpur. Over 50 delegates from 27 countries attended the conference that was kindly supported by Malaysia Rugby Union and World Rugby.)