From Madagascar to the World's Big Stage! Women's National Sevens Rugby Team to Challenge for the 2024 Paris Olympics
Rugby's popularity in Japan has grown dramatically, thanks in part to the 2019 Rugby World Cup held in the country. While the current World Cup in France captures the attention of fans worldwide, there is a team in Africa diligently working and striving to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics. This team is none other than the Madagascar women's national sevens rugby team, known as the Ladies Makis (Maki being the Malagasy term for ring-tailed lemur).
Madagascar is renowned in Japan for its breathtaking natural beauty and ecological diversity. However, it may come as a surprise to many that the country is also one of the poorest in the world. According to the World Bank (2021), approximately 79% of the population live on less than $1.9 per day. Economic hardship is a daily reality for the majority of the Malagasy people, with only a small privileged few able to live without financial struggles. Unfortunately, even the leading athletes of the Ladies Makis team are no exception from these challenges.
In Madagascar, where there are no professional rugby teams for men or women, players typically engage in work in their respective hometowns when there are no national team games or training camps. It is noteworthy that a significant number of the Ladies Makis are single mothers who bear the responsibility of supporting their families by selling goods on the streets. They demonstrate remarkable resilience and determination as they juggle their rugby commitments with the daily challenges of providing for their loved ones.
JICA provides support to the Ladies Makis in Madagascar, where there are no professional rugby players who earn a living solely from the sport. This support is carried out through the dispatch of overseas volunteers’ coaches.
Volunteer Mr. Imai and Ladies Makis
JICA's involvement with the Ladies Makis began six years ago with the dispatch of its first Rugby Overseas Volunteer, Nakano Yuki, in 2017. In 2019, through the Tokyo 2020 host town program, Gujo City in Gifu Prefecture welcomed Madagascar, which facilitated a tour to Japan thanks to Mr. Nakano's friendship. The Ladies Makis had the opportunity to learn team discipline in Japan, which proved instrumental in their subsequent achievements.
Following their training in Japan, the Ladies Makis secured an impressive third-place finish in the 2019 Tokyo 2020 qualifying Africa tournament. Their success continued as they earned a notable second-place finish in the World Cup qualifying Africa tournament in April 2022, marking their best performance to date. This achievement granted them qualification for the Women's 7-a-side Rugby World Cup held in South Africa in September of the same year.
During the World Cup, the Ladies Makis received support from Imai Akio, a second volunteer, who was dispatched to accompany the team. His contribution proved vital, and the Ladies Makis emerged victorious in the final match, marking their first-ever World Cup appearance and a historic triumph. This remarkable achievement attracted significant attention and the media coverage in Madagascar, solidifying their place as a source of national pride and a symbol of a historic victory.
4 volunteers (Mr. Terunuma, Mr. Isotani, Mr. Sato, and Mr. Imai) with Ladies Makis before the Indian Ocean Island Nations Sports Festival
In September of this year, exactly one year after their historic victory in South Africa, Madagascar hosted the 11th Indian Ocean Island Nations Sports Festival. This international tournament brought together seven countries and territories from the Indian Ocean region. Despite a tight schedule, with five matches played from the preliminary rounds to the finals over just two days, the Ladies Makis showcased their prowess.
Building upon their strengths, which included improved passing and kicking skills under the guidance of Imai Akio since the previous year, the team received additional support from three short-term volunteers specifically brought in for this tournament. Terunuma Yasuhiko, former coach of Waseda University and current coach of Tokyo Institute of Technology rugby team, Isotani Tatsuya, coach of the Shimane Iwami Chisuikan High School girls’ rugby team, and Sato Kazuto, former Toyota Motor VERBLITZ prop and employee at Toyota Motor Corp., joined the coaching staff.
With a solid performance throughout the competition, Madagascar advanced steadily from the qualifiers. They demonstrated their dominance in the semifinals with an impressive 56-0 victory over Mauritius. In the final match, they faced French Reunion and emerged triumphant with a resounding 26-0 scoreline, securing the championship title.
This remarkable achievement further solidifies the Ladies Makis' reputation as a rising force in international women's rugby. Their consistent success and the dedication of their coaching staff have proven instrumental in their continued progress and recognition on the global stage.
Most notably, throughout the tournament, the Ladies Makis achieved an unprecedented feat in 7-a-side rugby—they did not concede a single point to their opponents. This remarkable accomplishment is particularly significant in a format where scoring points is generally easier compared to 15-a-side rugby. It stands as a testament to the unity, technical prowess, and unwavering fighting spirit of the team as they pursue their ultimate goal of competing in the Paris Olympics. Claudia, the team captain, expressed her gratitude for the guidance provided by Mr. Imai and the other JICA Overseas Volunteers, affirming her commitment to persevere until the final whistle.
Immediately after their resounding victory, the Ladies Makis swiftly shifted their focus to the next challenge: the Africa Qualifier on October 14 and 15. Their participation in this event was a critical step towards securing a spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics. The team carried the hopes and dreams of their nation, aiming to become the first Malagasy team to compete in the Olympics in a team event. Fueled by high expectations, they fought with unwavering determination. Unfortunately, despite a bold effort, the team fell just short of qualification, concluding their Olympic journey in the qualifying round.
However, as Claudia mentioned after the game, the Ladies Makis were able to gain valuable experiences and perspectives through rugby. They learned vital lessons from the JICA Overseas Volunteers on how to approach the game and develop a winning mindset, lessons that were not readily available in Madagascar. The impact of the JICA volunteers' guidance and the team's diligent efforts will undoubtedly endure in the rugby world in Madagascar and serve as a foundation for future challenges.
Looking ahead, the next target for the Ladies Makis is the Women's Sevens Rugby World Cup scheduled for 2026. Expectations are high for the future of the Madagascar women's rugby team. Their successes and challenges will continue to be closely followed and supported.
After the victory in the 11th Indian Ocean Island Nations Sports Festival