Where does one even begin to find a rugby player in football-crazy Ghana? Strangely enough, the answer to that question is everywhere. That is if the President of Ghana Rugby Herbert Mensah’s comments are anything to go by.
“We have a player called Mike who had never seen a rugby ball before he took up the game 12 months ago. He doesn’t eat healthy foods or foods to make him big and strong.
“But he is playing at 110kg, 1.93m with total destructive power. He does not drop the ball, and he naturally gets into the right areas. He knows what to do at the breakdown. It’s freaky.
“Mike is just a fisherman …”
Less than 1 percent of Ghana’s 28-million population probably haven’t heard of rugby, never mind seen or held a rugby ball. They probably also don’t know that their country is the latest nation to become a full member of World Rugby.
Football is the undisputed King in Ghana, a game played and loved by millions.
Unlike other rugby nations on the continent such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia, there isn’t a school feeder system or a genuine rugby culture in Ghana. There are no former world stars to look up to. There are no Abedi Peles and Tony Yeboahs in Ghana rugby.
The most famous Ghanaian-born rugby player is Raymond Rhule, who made his debut for South Africa’s Springboks against the French in June this year. But even the speedy Cheetahs winger would walk down the streets of Accra unnoticed.
But for some reason, the game is starting to catch on in the country, mostly thanks to the efforts of Mensah and his longtime South African business partner, Rian Malan.
Mensah was born in Ghana, but completed his schooling and university in the United Kingdom, where he was exposed to rugby and started playing the game. He continued playing the game when he moved to Zimbabwe to work in the tobacco industry, and even earned an international cap for Mashonaland against Italy.
Mensah then went back to the UK where he played for Saracens, before going back to Ghana to make a name for himself in the communication industry.
But before Mensah got involved in rugby administration, he was heavily involved in uplifting football in Ghana. He was the chairman of the popular Kumasi Asante Kotoko football club and helped to make the game more professional in the country.
In 2014 Mensah turned his focus to rugby, with the vision of growing the game in the West African country. And, remarkably, three years later Ghana has become a full member of World Rugby.
“Rugby is a minority sport [in Ghana]and I think people are amazed how quickly we managed to get everything in place to become full members of World Rugby,” Mensah told KweséESPN.
“World Rugby was surprised by our bold proposals. I remember when we went to Dublin, it seemed as if we were too ambitious for their needs. But I’m a rugby man and a businessman, and I know that if you want to reap you have to sow.
“I have been in business on the continent and around the world. The fact of the matter is, if you are from Africa you have to do better than if you are from somewhere else. If you are from north of the Limpopo and south of the Sahara, you have to work even harder.
“The first thing we did was to take a look at how rugby is run in New Zealand, South Africa and England — what do they do in the developed world. By doing that we wanted to show that even though we are some way behind on the pitch, we are on par with tier-one nations off it. Africa Rugby has also been very supportive.”
Three years after Mensah became president of Ghana Rugby, Ghana has over 300 registered male and 30 female rugby players. They currently have a 10-team league, while they have also launched the World Rugby ‘Get Into Rugby’ program.
Ghana Rugby has also been invited to play in the Rugby Afrique Men’s Sevens Tournament that will take place in Kampala, Uganda on 6 and 7 October 2017.
This tournament is huge for Ghana, as it also doubles as the qualifier for the Sevens Rugby World Cup 2018 and next year’s Commonwealth Games. There will also be a chance to play in the 2018 Hong Kong Sevens qualifying tournament.
Malan, who played provincial rugby at school for the Blue Bulls in South Africa, has made a massive contribution behind the scenes in getting Ghana Rugby’s structures in place.
The Somerset West native saw the potential to start the game in the country, because of his love for the game and the people of Ghana. It also helped that their physique is suited to rugby. However, the lack of a rugby culture still needs to be overcome if they are going to grow the game even more.
“When Ghanaians see a rugby ball they think it got spoiled in the rain. ‘That ball should be round’ they would say,” Malan told KweséESPN..
Money, though, remains the biggest stumbling block for Ghana Rugby, with Mensah footing the bill for the bulk of their needs.
Unlike South Africa and Zimbabwe, where the sport is popular among the middle class, in Ghana it’s the poor who have taken to the game. People who live on the streets and fishermen like Mike are playing rugby in Ghana.
It’s difficult to say if the hardships these people endure in their daily lives have inadvertently helped them to adapt to the physical and mental demands of the game. But they are certainly enjoying every minute of it.
“In Ghana, it’s the poorer people who play rugby. We are getting people from the ghetto and the slums, and we have to start from a tiny base to get them involved,” says Mensah.
“Before we can teach players the fundamentals of the game, we have to check if the players actually have the heart for it. We are looking for a different breed of athlete that you don’t normally associate with a football nation like ours.
“They must have the physicality to man up, and not start crying if they fall over. We have found them. Most of the players have nothing, but they are prepared to give you everything.
“We don’t get any money from our government. Even when we play international tournaments, they give us nothing. A lot of the investment has come from myself, and I have been trying to encourage people to get involved,” Mensah said.
“We are now getting the expatriates involved. The major corporations could easily put in something extra as well.”
Ghana has still a long way to go to compete with the best teams in Africa, who are currently battling it out in the Rugby Africa Gold Cup for a spot in the 2018 World Cup.
But with rugby-loving people like Herbert Mensah involved, there is no reason why they can’t be fighting it out with Africa’s tier-one teams for a place in the 2023 Rugby World Cup, which may be hosted by South Africa.
John Goliath, KweséESPN