Africa Union

Row in Africa over 2023 Rugby World Cup qualifiers in France

African rugby's governing body, Rugby Africa, has been accused of ignoring the interests of the game on the continent following a controversial decision to host its 2023 Rugby World Cup qualifiers in France.

In July eight African teams will compete in a tournament in two French cities, Aix-en-Provence and Marseille, for one automatic ticket to the finals set to be hosted by France in September next year.

This will be the first time in the history of African rugby that its World Cup qualifiers have been held outside continental borders and the decision has been met with discontent in Africa.

One contender, Namibia, have spoken out against the move, saying they are "dissatisfied" with the decision.

"We did request Rugby Africa to revisit their decision," Namibia rugby president Corrie Mensah said, but "the outcome was to remain with France as host."

Kenya and Zimbabwe put in bids which the continental body described as "strong", but it decided to award the hosting rights to France.

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"Our main goal is to keep growing and progressing and taking our rightful place on the international stage," Rugby Africa told BBC Sport Africa in a statement.

"In collaboration with our members and partners, Rugby Africa needs to invent new ways and create new opportunities to grow its revenue and redistribute it in African rugby."

Former Uganda women's international Helen Buteme told BBC Sport Africa that Rugby Africa "doesn't have the interests of African rugby at heart".

"There is no justification whatsoever for taking what is our biggest tournament to a European country," she added. "Africa needs this tournament while France does not."

Namibia will be aiming to clinch a seventh consecutive appearance at the global tournament, having made their debut in 1999.

The other teams set for the qualifying competition, to be held from 1-10 July, are Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Ivory Coast.

The runners-up will have a second chance to reach the World Cup via a final four-team round-robin global qualifier to be held in November.

'Not in best interests' of African rugby

Ivory Coast in action against France at the 1995 Rugby World Cup

BBC Sport Africa understands that France2023, the local organiser for next year's World Cup, will oversee the African qualifier but the reason France decided to bid for the event remains unclear.

BBC Sport Africa was earlier informed by a high-ranking official that the French Rugby Federation (FFR) was surprised by the bid, but its communication director Laurent Latour denied the claim, saying the FFR had not opposed it.

Our questions to France2023 went unanswered.

In Kenya, one rugby commentator believes the move negates the work done to grow the game from the grassroots level.

"This decision by Rugby Africa goes against the trend across the continent to spread the game to the grassroots," Daudi Were said.

"Rugby Africa is attempting to undo all the good work by rugby development officers across the continent by hosting our most important tournament abroad."

An official sponsor of Rugby Africa, APO, added to the growing criticism with its chairman and founder Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard saying: "We believe the decision is not in the best interest of African rugby. One can only wonder whether there are other interests at play."

In response to the criticism, Rugby Africa told BBC Sport Africa that financial considerations played a part in the decision, with some of their members struggling for money.

"This event in France is seen as a springboard to kick-start a new dynamic of income generation that will help us grow," Rugby Africa said.

Concerns among supporters

As Rugby Africa looks to appeal to an international fanbase, some on the continent feel deprived of an opportunity to watch their teams in stadiums, because travel to Europe is costly.

The governing body, however, argues that while they understand fans' disappointment, the Covid-19 pandemic may not have allowed supporters to attend matches anyway. It has also promised high-quality broadcasts will be available.

However, Rugby Africa has 38 members across the continent – some of whom have hosted major continental events during the pandemic, including the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon – so it is unclear why it would settle for a European country.

The continent has also shown it has the capacity to host major international events in the past, including the 1995 Rugby World Cup and 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa and a World Under-20 Athletics Championships.

Fans across the continent moved their campaign online with a petition set up in the hope that it can influence Rugby Africa's decision, but the page has only garnered 1,387 signatures in five months.

There have been calls for World Rugby, the custodians of the sport globally, to influence a reversal of the decision but the body told BBC Sport Africa it cannot interfere with its regional associations' decisions, dimming any hope that the tournament will be held on African soil.

Artmotion S.Africa

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