The man in charge of African rugby, Herbert Mensah, says the sport should be taught in every African school, going as far as to claim that it has the power to solve social and political problems.
In March, Mensah was elected as the new president of Rugby Africa, the administrative organisation which runs the game on the continent.
He believes it can be a “way to unify and bring together” people in regions affected by conflict and instability.
“The wonderful values of rugby are better than that of football or anything else.”
“The solidarity, the respect, the working together – all the values that encompass rugby surely should be taught in schools.”
A Ghanaian businessman who was formerly the boss of Ghana Rugby and chairman of Ghana Premier League football club Kumasi Asante Kotoko, Mensah has the air of a smooth political operator.
And he is already enacting a plan to bring rugby and politics together, reaching out to the European Union for potential funding while having met with the African Union (AU) in a bid to build a “strategic” relationship.
“We understand that the AU has no money for us. What we’re saying is, introduce it as part of the curriculum.
“You’re dealing with nutrition, you’re dealing with lifestyle – all the things that say we care for our children.
“Then we can take that to governments and say, ‘look, the AU has sanctioned it [rugby in schools]’. We’re trying to grow the game here.”
South Africa captain Siya Kolisi sits on the floor with a large group of young schoolchildren sitting around and behind him in front of a school building
South Africa captain Siya Kolisi is also a strong believer in the power of school rugby
‘Caught with their pants down’
Mensah’s belief in the power of rugby borders on evangelical.
Referencing countries from the Sahel region including Burkina Faso and Mali, which are struggling with Islamist insurgencies, and Niger, which recently underwent a coup, Mensah says Africa is “on the point of evolution” and that the rest of the world has been “caught with their pants down” by not understanding the problems of young people.
“They’ve been caught completely unawares and, quite frankly, don’t know what to do about it,” he states.
“Now is the time for us to invest and say, ‘we’re going to play matches between Niger and Ghana, Burkina and the rest’. Nobody is going to stop a young kid from throwing a ball around, knowing you can cross a border without worry.
“There’s somewhere in rugby for everyone. Surely, the game is the way to unify.”
When pressed on whether such an aim is truly realistic, the 62-year-old insists “it must be”, adding that he wants to see the “tenets of rugby” permeate society.
Does Africa deserve another World Cup spot?
In the past, Rugby Africa has been accused of not having “the interests of African rugby at heart”, following a decision to play some World Cup qualifiers in France.
At the time, Rugby Africa told Sport Africa that decision was based on financial considerations.
Mensah agrees that finding extra money for a sport which is not universally popular across the continent is at the top of his to-do list.
“Why are the Springboks so good and the rest of Africa perhaps not of the same level? Why does Tendai Mtawarira, ‘The Beast’, one of the greatest props in the history of World Cup rugby, come from Zimbabwe and yet it is the investment in South Africa which means he can go there and shine? So there is this disparity.
“There are many governments in Africa that I’m dealing with right now and saying you do need to raise investment.”
Mensah lists Kenya, Uganda, Morocco and Ivory Coast as nations with whom he has had discussions, while his native Ghana has already constructed a purpose-built rugby stadium. Even Mauritius is showing willing, hosting an Olympic pre-qualification rugby sevens tournament earlier this year.
Herbert Mensah and Julien Collette stand side-by-side passing a rugby ball between them with a Paris skyline in the background
Herbert Mensah has been meeting rugby administrators in Europe, including Julien Collette, the man in charge of organising the 2023 Rugby World Cup, in a bid to raise support and funds for Africa
But Mensah remains concerned about what the funding Africa receives from World Rugby, the sport’s global governing body.
“We have $2.3m (£1.85m) from World Rugby to run 37 countries – it just doesn’t work.
“You can’t have the competition base, the Test match base, the development pathway for that potential to realise itself.
“Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe – I’m talking about the better nations – they simply don’t get enough play-time. Off the budget you have, you can’t create competitions.”
With the 2023 World Cup now under way in France, Mensah is also unhappy with the fact that Africa only receives one automatic qualification place, South Africa having already qualified by virtue of their world ranking.
He describes the allocation as “fundamentally wrong”, particularly given the Americas receive two, allowing Chile to debut at this tournament.
“World Rugby is looking at the Americas as the future rather than Africa,” claims Mensah. “We are in danger of getting left behind.”
Africa has been represented at the last seven World Cups by the same two sides: South Africa and Namibia. You have to go back to 1995 to find a different nation, Ivory Coast, taking part.
Six months into his new job, the man now in charge of the African game concedes the status quo is not benefiting anyone. So what response has he received when raising the prospect of an extra World Cup berth for the continent?
“It’s silence, or the time is not right, we need to improve the quality of rugby on the continent. But it’s a chicken-and-egg situation if you don’t have the investment.”
Rugby World Cup 2023: Kolisi is South Africa’s ‘symbol of hope’ – Mtawarira
Rugby World Cup 2023: Namibia can make ‘anything happen’ – Coetzee
Namibia wing Gerswin Mouton opens his arms out in frustration standing over a ruck during the France Rugby World Cup 2023 pool match against Italy
Namibia have qualified for seven consecutive Rugby World Cups but their defeat to Italy in the current tournament made it 23 defeats from 23 games played
The ‘gold standard’
As Mensah hunts for outside investment to grow the game he loves, he says “optics are everything” because money “never wants to be associated with negativity”.
His stated aim is to make Rugby Africa the “gold standard” when it comes to the continent’s sporting administrative bodies, freely admitting there are “many” countries with issues.
“I’ve got no problem in naming names,” he says. “We’ve got a team in Morocco right now working with them, almost in Cameroon (things are) resolved.
“Even in Ghana, there’s a complete team coming in to do an audit. They’ll do training, they’ll do medical care, because medical standards are changing. So it is a complete package to make sure that teams are playing to the standard that World Rugby has dictated.”
As well as national member associations, Mensah is also looking to clean his own house.
“For the first time ever, we’re going through a constitutional review to change the tenets upon which Rugby Africa operates.”
From rugby in schools to politics and the game’s global stage, Mensah is already learning some hard lessons as he looks to tackle the challenge of turning rugby into a truly pan-African sport.