Rugby Inside Line spoke to Jean-Baptiste Gobelet, the Director of Rugby for Mauritius. Located off the coast of Madagascar, Mauritius is a diverse but small island nation. The island has influences from Europe, Africa and Asia. We were keen to hear about the direction Mauritian rugby is travelling in and their aspirations for the 2024 Olympic games.
RIL: Tell me about your playing career and how you became involved with Mauritius Rugby.
Jean-Baptiste Gobelet: I am a former player for both France Rugby Union and Sevens squads. Despite being an unusual size of 6ft and 255lbs, I played on the wing and at fullback for Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque, ASM Clermont Auvergne, Stade Français and then eventually finished off my career in San Diego, USA.
Winning the Top 14 twice, lifting Bouclier de Brennus in 2005 and 2006, I played 120 games in the Top14, as well playing over 250 matches in the World and European Sevens Series.
I first became involved with Mauritius Rugby in Hong Kong, when I met the President of the Federation and we spoke about sevens and the general development of rugby. I had never heard about rugby in Mauritius before and was curious to see for myself, so I travelled to Mauritius for the World Club 10’s in June 2017. I was very surprised about the island – to me, all of the major indicators were green to develop an Olympic project. At first, being a basic federation, there was very little in terms of human resources and I am responsible for a lot of different departments such as, High Performance Development, Women’s Programme and Marketing & Communications. It is sometimes very tough to manage everything in one day, but it has given me a lot of experiences. The challenge is very exciting, which is why I initially accepted to develop the Olympic Programme.
RIL: Madagascar’s national sport is rugby. Is this something that Mauritius are hoping to replicate? If so, how do you plan on developing rugby throughout the country?
J-BG: Football is still the most popular sport in Mauritius, with over 17,000 players and people here love to watch the Premier League. The majority of people are big fans of English football and especially Liverpool, who recently launched their international academy in Mauritius.
There are only 600 rugby players in Mauritius, but with rugby winning the 2018 Mauritius Team Sport of the Year Award, the men’s and women’s teams being in the top 12 across Africa and the youth team ranked in the top 3 – this just demonstrates that rugby is becoming more and more popular. The ideas is to encourage more people to play rugby in the next 4 years and to democratize the sport on the island in order to develop a better base for the future.
RIL: What are the short and long-term ambitions for rugby in Mauritius?
J-BG: In 2017, Mauritius was selected to host the Indian Ocean Island Games in July 2019, so needed to train and prepare an amateur team to contend on home soil and bring back a medal. In 2018, Mauritius competed in the U18 Youth African Games where we were able to return with the bronze medal after losing out to South Africa in the semi-final – not only was this a fantastic achievement, it was a historic moment for Mauritius Rugby to reach that stage in the competition and win a medal.
Longer-term, our goal is for our men’s and women’s sevens squads to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. A big challenge, but behind this long-term ambition there is a strategy of development for rugby across the island.
RIL: With Mauritius being such a diverse country, is the current squad mainly Franco-Mauritians or are there a number of Creole and Indo-Mauritians that also play?
J-BG: Mauritius is such a diverse country, but the national rugby team was not representative of our nation, which is the case in a number of countries, and it takes time to change the rugby culture – sevens is the best tool to do it. Since the start of the school and development programs, which reaches 300+ schools and 26,000 children, the number of Creole and Indo-Mauritians that are beginning to play is growing every year, which means we have access to an important reserve of talented players.
RIL: Does Mauritius Rugby currently have any connections with clubs around the world? Is there a pathway for players to develop their game outside of Mauritius?
J-BG: We have created an overseas program to assist players who are playing and studying abroad (Australia, Africa, Europe or Asia). We are also forming a strategic partnership with the Mauritius Rugby Federation and clubs in order to optimise the relation between us.
We are also trying to find new players worldwide with our overseas program. All players who have a Mauritian passport or Mauritian relatives are welcome to join our Olympic program. It is very important for us to find new male and female talent overseas (email@example.com).
RIL: What are the greatest challenges facing rugby in Mauritius?
J-BG: The greatest challenge is getting a good base of knowledge for development and high performance in order to raise the profile of rugby in Mauritius, as well as generating a mix between social rugby and elite performance. These are the main reasons why our Olympic program is based around high performance and development – The Olympic dream will impact everyone.
RIL: How do Mauritius plan to achieve significant success in the Africa Cup?
J-BG: It’s a long-term plan of action alongside the Mauritius2024 program. Mauritius need to create its own DNA of the game in each sector of high performance: technical, physical, tactical and mental. Not to copy South Africa or French-style but to adapt their game with the players they have – a different game focused on hand skills and decision makers and not only physical attributes.
Physically, players in Mauritius have a good level of cardio, which comes about due to the large amounts of trail and endurance running they do. We have worked especially hard on our cardio during our IOIG (Indian Ocean Island Games) preparation and now 90% of the squad are achieving between 4.29-4.40 on the Bronco Test. However, there is a lack of strength. The culture of gym workouts is not the same as teams, such as South Africa and players do not go to the gym enough to play at international level. It is not the most important aspect in rugby, but they need to work on it if they want to compete against much more physical African teams.
Tactically, players and coaches need to play more regional and international competitions to develop their sense of tactics. The level of competitiveness on the island is low, so the best players do not always need to think so tactically. Mentality is the biggest part of our work and ‘discipline’ is the key word throughout the high-performance teams.
Growing into a winning culture will take time and it will arrive with the younger generations. The ‘Golden Generation’ in Mauritius will be much more used to playing international games from the age of 12yrs, so should not be overly complex when playing against teams they will play in the Africa Cup.
RIL: Could you tell me about Mauritius’ 2024 Olympic ambitions?
J-BG: If you want to be ready for the Olympics, you need to create an Olympic generation. Since 2017, our U12 squad have worked with the best educators and coaches, as well as learning new skills through the +1000 Program. This program is inspired by the FC Barcelona Academy and allows educators to count how many times players touch balls during training sessions. In theory, we would be hoping that kids make around 1000 passes per week and by continually repeating this, become better.
We currently have a base of 10 high-performance players on the island for international competitions and we hope that every year for the next five years, we are able to bring 3 more high performance players into the squad, which will eventually double/triple our reserve of players. Behind the high-performance project is the development format, which is the most important. Tutor the base and train more educators (S&C, Medical, Referees and Coaches).
The next step in our Olympic program is the Youth Olympic Games in 2022. We have created a successful women’s academy, which has seen 50+ individuals join the program and there are now 3 teams on the island. Women’s rugby is the fastest growing sport in Mauritius. The Mauritius2024 program is more than a simple program, it is a way to inspire an entire nation with one Olympic dream.
RIL: Finally, who do you think will win the Rugby World Cup and why?
J-BG: I think that the Rugby World Cup will be full of surprises. I think the tiers nations will upset the big 6 – Japan, USA and Fiji will be ready to create a shock. I’m predicting a historical semi-final qualification for Fiji – England vs. Fiji probably. I am hoping that someone new wins the tournament in Japan, exit England, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand…