Wheelchairs, rugby and lemurs: The Arabian Gulf rugby community spreads goodwill in Seychelles and Madagascar.
It was the morning of 26 June 2016, two day’s prior to the departure of the Air Seychelles Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors goodwill rugby mission to Seychelles and Madagascar. The Middle East based team, with players from clubs in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar, awakes to the news that there had been what was described as a terrorist attack at Mahamasina Stadium in Madagascar, killing two and wounding 80 people. The stadium was the very place where the Conquistadors were intending to play the Madagascar national side in a rugby match one week later.
To go or not to go – that was the question. We did a risk assessment – following the attack Madagascar was categorised as a ‘medium travel risk’ – the attack initially considered to be a ‘one-off’ associated with a national day rally. We asked the team – were they prepared to travel to Madagascar given the circumstances?
Two day’s later, and after monitoring the situation closely for any escalation, and after receiving assurances of increased security by the Madagascar Rugby Union, on the morning of the scheduled departure later that evening, 22 of the 24 person mission squad were ‘in.’
Excited and nervous we headed to Abu Dhabi Airport for the primary sponsor, Air Seychelles, flight to Madagascar via the Seychelles.
Seven months earlier the team had formed under the banner of their good mate, Mike Ballard, an American national from Michigan who suffered a serious spinal injury whilst playing for the Abu Dhabi Harlequins in the 2014 West Asian Club Championship final.
At the time and over the ensuing two years, the Arabian Gulf rugby community supported Mike, who that year was nominated for the prestigious UAE Player of the Year Award. Now back on top his rehabilitation after two determined and inspiring years (he broke every rehabilitation record at the Mary Freebed Rehabilitation Hospital in Michigan), Mike has moved back to Abu Dhabi to live and work, taking up a place at his old school, the “New England Centre for Children with Autism”, where his teaching greatly inspired the Autistic children and their families.
The Conquistadors were set up initially to support Mike with his move back to Abu Dhabi – and Mike arrived the night before the Dubai 7s – making it back to lead the Conquistadors onto the pitch at the Dubai 7’s in December 2015.
With the success of the team at the Sevens where they reached the semi finals of one of the local leagues, Mike and the team took the initiative to embark on an annual ‘good will’ mission to have a positive impact on the lives of others, through rugby union.
Mike Ballard comments:
“The support of the rugby community was a major driving force in getting me through my darkest hour when I was injured in 2014, and we formed the Conquistadors team soon after so we could help out other rugby communities around the world. On top of being a good a chance for us to further the sport of rugby, this trip is also an opportunity to improve the lives of people who may have suffered a spinal injury or have mobility problems for other reasons. I want to thank Air Seychelles for making this goodwill mission possible.”
And so it was that we were enroute to Seychelles, six months after the Seychelles and Madagascar vision.
Seychelles and the Air Seychelles Press Conference
After a very comfortable flight (the management team were grateful to fly business class much to the team’s chargin), we were greeted upon disembarking by no other than the Seychelles Minister of Health, the honourable Mitcy Larue, the CEO of Air Seychelles, Roy Kinnear, members of the Seychelles Rugby Union and others. A fantastic press conference ensued and the team donated 20 wheelchairs to Seychelles hospital.
The honourable Mitcy Larue, the Seychelles Minister of Health, commented:
“We are thrilled to receive this generous donation of wheelchairs, which will go a long way towards improving the quality of life for people with disabilities, the elderly and other patients with mobility problems in Seychelles. The fact that it is coupled with the promotion of sports, which are an essential component of healthy living, makes this initiative doubly positive.”
Roy Kinnear, CEO of Air Seychelles commented:
“Air Seychelles is extremely proud to support this goodwill mission, which will benefit many people with mobility and physical impairments in both Seychelles and Madagascar. In addition to providing much-needed medical equipment, this initiative will also contribute to the development of rugby in the Indian Ocean region. We’re happy that as the national airline we can play our part in increasing engagement in sports. What this tour also demonstrates is the significant contribution of our four-per-week Antananarivo service to the growth of people-to-people, government and cultural ties, between our island countries as well as other markets such as the UAE.”
I don’t think any of the gents who were part of the mission team had experienced anything like the conference at Seychelles Airport. “I feel like a rock star,” commented one of the younger members of the team, Charles Etchells, who is studying to be a doctor at Manchester University.
The photos sum up the wonderful experience.
And then it was onwards to Madagascar where we intended to donate 40 wheelchairs and medical equipment to the Aide Manjakasoa Madagascar rehabilitation facility, hold two day’s of rugby coaching with 300 U14 children from 7 clubs and 3 schools; and play the match v the Madagascar national side.
Madagascar. What a place. The third largest island in the world is a developing country where nine out of ten people live on less than two dollars a day. It is also a country where rugby is the national sport with over 48,000 participants, and the national team, ‘the Makis’, are ranked 41 in the world. Put simply, they are rugby mad! Madagascar has the third highest number of registered players in Africa but the majority of rugby playing children (90%) don’t have any uniforms.
On the way from the airport to the hotel, the bus went silent. There were thousands of people, all busy, doing something, going somewhere, and they didn’t appear to have much. It was a sobering sight.
Despite not appearing to have much, the Madagascan people had a proud dignity about them – were not pushy and had a good sense of humour. When we started unpacking the gear from the bus on a busy street, rather than try and sell us a set of drums and vuvuzela, the vendors began playing for us – which afterwards resulted in a number of vuvuzela’s being purchased.
Over the ensuing days we:
- Donated 40 wheelchairs and medical supplies to the Aide Manjakasoa Madagascar charity;
- Held junior rugby coaching clinics and delivered junior rugby clothing, boots and gear, collected from rugby clubs and schools in the Arabian Gulf region, to rugby clubs in the Antananarivo region; and
- Played an ‘exhibition match’ against the Madagascan Rugby Team, the Makis (the Malagasy name for the ‘ring-tailed lemur’), currently ranked at No.42 in the world.
- Seeing the smiles and gratefulness on the children’s faces when they received new uniforms and boots.
- Seeing how good the Madagascan juniors were at rugby – their skills, offloads, and physicality rivalled junior rugby growing up in New Zealand.
- Practicing lineouts on the streets of Antananarivo, and then giving the balls to the children who scampered down the street with big grins passing and doing backline moves
- Unwrapping the wheelchairs at the Aide Aide Manjakasoa – logistically getting them there had been a mission in itself.
- Playing a match against the Madagascan National side, when it looked very unlikely following the terrorist attack.
- It was wonderful to have seven of the clubs in the Gulf playing together side by side – Abu Dhabi Saracens, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Bahrain RFC, Doha RFC, Dubai Hurricanes, Dubai Sharks, Jebal Ali Dragons, and British School of Al Khubairat – a throwback to the Arabian Gulf days.
We were lucky to play a match at all. Following the attack on the stadium, all public events were banned – understandably. Initially, months earlier, we were informed that the game was to attract over 30,000 people. After the event, however, we were informed that we could play, but with no crowd – it would have been too much of a security risk. We were disappointed of course – we all wanted to play in front of 30,000 people, but in the big picture, the objective of the mission was the charity work – and we still managed to complete that.
Finding a stadium also proved to be a mission – with the Mahamasina Stadium out of action, and the ‘Makis Stadium’ hard as a rock and with a number of sizeable holes in it, a ‘SWOT’ team of Tom Calnan, Edward Lewsey and Winston Cowie went on a mission to view other options. We didn’t have to go far – a 20 minute walk from the Hotel was the Stade Malacan, replete with lush, springy grass, and a resident bull.
We had a venue.
On the match, there were strong performances from centres Stephen Hamilton (Abu Dhabi Saracens), Adam Wallace (Bahrain RFC), half back Ed Lewsey (Abu Dhabi Harlequins), and in the forwards Harry Seward and Graham Murphy (Abu Dhabi Harlequins). Tries were scored by centre Adam Wallace (Bahrain RFC), Winston Cowie (Abu Dhabi Saracens), Ed Lewsey (Abu Dhabi Harlequins), and Harry Seward (Abu Dhabi Harlequins).
Sam Wilson (Bahrain RFC) was named co-captain for the match with Adam Telford (Jebal Ali Dragons) – both have contributed a huge amount to Arabian Gulf rugby – and both were playing their last big matches. Adam, unfortunately had to fly back to Abu Dhabi as the match was postponed to find a suitable ground – so it was Sam Wilson who captained the side.
“It was a real honour to captain an Arabian Gulf side in my last match here – for me, having played against many of the guys from the clubs, in addition to having the national teams – the likes of the UAE and Qatar, its also awesome to have an Arabian Gulf side to do something charitable, play some rugby, and get to know those guys from the other clubs. It will be really good in the next year for all of these guys to now know each other when they play against each other. It’s an amazing rugby region – I’ve enjoyed my time here, and yeah, a real honour to play footy with these guys.”
The final score was 55-26 to Madagascar, the Conquistadors winning the second half 26-19.
Newspaper coverage – The National – Paul Radley
The goodwill mission was expertly covered by experienced journalist, The National newspaper’s Paul Radley.
Paul completed the below articles, and the following video which gives a real indication of the Air Seychelles Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors Goodwill Mission 2016.
Team Dubai Sports City Training Camp Video. Click here.
Air Seychelles Mike Ballard Foundation Seychelles and Madagascar Goodwill Mission Video. Click here.
A massive massive thank you to all of the Air Seychelles Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors sponsors who made this goodwill mission possible. We simply could not have done it without your kindness and generosity!
A massive thank you to Malagasy Rugby for hosting us and showing us around Madagascar – what an incredible country!
Who could forget our boat trip across a lake full with crocodiles? And those lemurs….
Many thanks to all sponsors, Malagasy rugby and the Arabian Gulf rugby community.
We all feel incredibly grateful to be a part of such a wonderful rugby community – the Arabian Gulf. Together we have achieved something pretty special.
Until next year.
There are plans in the pipeline…..#onwards