Duane Heath

The Boks' Caracas connection

2004-12-03 08:37

Douglas Rodriguez is not a Springbok rugby player, but this week he finds himself in the same boat as our tired green giants on tour in Argentina.

Douglas, like our homesick heroes, is marooned in a foreign land, on the vast continent of South America, just wishing he could go home.

For the Boks, however, the escape plan is simple: one game of rugby stands between them and those steep steps leading up to their 747, ready to fly them back to South Africa and probably straight to a Super 12 training session. Win or lose against Los Pumas, their way out is already plotted.

Douglas Rodriguez isn't nearly as lucky as our men who moan while in the lap of first-class luxury, but we'll get to that later. What I can tell you now is that his rugby title is as modest as they come: vice-president of the Venezuelan rugby referees' association.

Don't let the label fool you. He's no Andre Markgraaff, but Douglas nevertheless lives for the game, having tried as hard as he could to find a rugby pulse in a country casting dark shadows across his dream. All he wants now is to help keep that shallow heartbeat going.

For a start, there are no rugby fields in Venezuela. Not one. The country's 35 teams play on soccer fields, which are everywhere, when they can.

But despite having the deck stacked against it, Venezuelan rugby has gone from strength to strength in a short time. "The first rugby game in Venezuela was played in 1975," Douglas tells me, "and at that time there were only four Venezuelans in the team!

Biggest movers on IRB rankings

"By 1980 there were just four teams. In 1990 there were seven sides. By 2000 there were 25 teams and today our family consists of over 35 teams and is growing. We did this with mud, sweat and tears."

Venezuela were the biggest movers in last month's International Rugby Board rankings, moving up six places to 42. Not quite world-beaters - yet.

"The road to the World Cup is still difficult, but with our heart we'll make it some day," he says. "We still need experience, we want to be able to stand before Argentina or Uruguay and have a hard game."

Since the 2003 World Cup, the IRB, according to Douglas, has been helping Venezuela along with South America's other minnows, Colombia, Peru and Brazil.

The South American rugby body, Consur, organises an annual championship made up of two divisions. The A group features heavyweights Argentina, Uruguay (who face the Boks next year, in East London), Chile and Paraguay. The B group consists of Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.

"Last year, Venezuela was champion of the B division and won the right to play the bottom team in the A division, Paraguay," says Douglas, "but Paraguay didn't play at all, so we played in the A division. Don't ask for the score; it was plenty for the other countries!"

Douglas's rugby dreams extend beyond the national side. He's also passionate about the Alcatraz project, which uses rugby to lure the country's delinquent youth off the streets. The project is headed by a former rugby player and survives with the help of some NGOs. The Venezuelan government has promised to help.

But Douglas Rodriguez's vision of Venezuelan rugby one day standing up to the likes of the Pumas, looks set to be dashed.

Unlike our Springboks, who have a return flight home, Douglas left his country on a one-way ticket.

"I am no longer living in Venezuela, due to the political situation and my deep belief in democracy," he explains. "I had to run away this year. I was one of the four million who signed against the government and now my political status is 'traitor'."

Douglas is living in Ecuador, which he calls "a real paradise", doing the best he can. But it's not home.

"There is no rugby here," he says, "but in a poor children's school where I help teach computer science, one day they came to me and asked me if I knew how to play rugby. They began to play by watching TV!

"I still don't know why, but since then I've been training them and I hope to create a rugby union here in the near future."

My hat goes off to you sir, and good luck.

Send Duane your views on this column.

  • Duane Heath is a freelance sportswriter who has written about the game for News24, Rugby World, IRB World of Rugby and the Sunday Times.

  • Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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