In Belo Horizonte we had the pleasure of staying at the same hotel as Martin Dowle, Director of the British Council in Brasil. The British Council is a charity which works closely with the British Foreign Office to promote knowledge of the English language and British culture around the world. It was established in the nineteen thirties to counter the rise in fascism. I have long been a fan of its work because whilst politics and religion often divide culture always connects.
One of the most important parts of global culture is of course sport and the British Council have many programmes teaching and training in a variety of sports around the world. One such programme Martin told us about over breakfast has us intrigued it was ‘Try Rugby Brasil’ a joint initiative between the British Council and Premiership Rugby. There was a special training session happening that day at the training ground of the Team GB Rugby Sevens camp in Belo Horizonte.
I love to see ground breaking initiatives. Rugby is making its first appearance at the Olympics for over 100 years. Rugby is one of the oldest organised sports in the world owning its roots to Rugby School in England. The first rules of the game were written by William Webb Ellis (a student at Rugby) in 1845. This I should say is not the bruising, grunting 15-a-side Rugby Union series we are used to seeing on tv but a very fast version of only seven a side playing for two halves of seven minutes each. It is incredibly exciting to watch and I sure will be a big hit at the Olympics and Paralympics.
We arrived at the training ground and were met by Amanda Lima, Head of Sports for the British Council in Brasil. I was surprised to see around fifty young students who were watching the Team GB rugby training session. These were a representative group of a very large and fast growing population who now regularly play rugby in Brasil. The group was evenly divided with the number of girls and boys reflecting the reality that female rugby is as popular a male and Team GB has both male and female teams competing in Rio. A few years ago, before the programme started, it was estimated that there were about 10,000 Brazilians playing rugby. Following the Try Rugby initiative that number has now grown to 15,000 and is expanding quickly.
Brazil is of course a football mad country and I asked some of the young people how their friends reacted when they said they were playing rugby? The answer was that once they explained the game and they saw some clips on social media they thought it was really cool. This to me is exactly the type of thing which education should do–broadening peoples experiences. I knew a university professor who would always urge his students to broaden the base of their life experiences because a pyramid can only be built as high as the basis is wide. By playing rugby in Brasil these young students were increasing their life potential.
Of course education requires students, subjects but it also requires inspirational teachers. Here they were in luck. Premiership Rugby funded young rugby players and students from the UK to come across to Brasil for a year to teach in various programmes. We met three of them: Andrew Turner, David Holby and Lucy Brown all great ambassadors for the support who were loving their time in Brasil. I asked them how they ‘sold’ rugby to Brasilians who hadn’t heard of it. I joked that perhaps the best way might be to say “There is this game and the Argentinians are getting really good at it!” There is one final ingredient required in the education process and that is a role model. We were very fortunate that one of the stars of the England team (and Newcastle Falcons) Marcus Watson came across to talk with the students and of course to pose for photographs with star-struck politicians.
It was a wonderful few hours spent seeing the powerful combination of sport and education in building young lives. Well done British Council, Premiership Rugby and Team GB Rugby Sevens–proud of you.