Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Could Algeria become a future challenger in the Africa Gold Cup?

The Rugby Africa Gold Cup this year looks highly likely to see Namibia ease through to their sixth consecutive Rugby World Cup appearance. Unlike four years ago when the Welwitschias were ravaged by terrible preparation and internal disputes which very nearly cost them. Under Phil Davies they now seem to have got their act together, whilst virtually all their opponents look totally ill prepared and with internal problems themselves this time.

Unfortunately this tournament has not been a good advert for African rugby. So far the standard of every team apart from Namibia has not been very good to say the least. The only intrigue is the battle to see who gets the Repechage spot to face Canada, Hong Kong, & Germany in November but it's hard to see any of them winning a game there on this evidence.

However in searching for some of the teamsheets this led to discovering the Algeria Wikipedia page in French, that is detailed and obviously been written and edited by someone following them closely.

Reading an article from Rugbyrama (which a lot of the Wikipedia page seems to be based upon) it says rugby was non-existent in Algeria up until 2007 when some players in France decided to start a project to bring the sport back to the country.

Their first unofficial international match was in March 2007 an 8-7 away win over Tunisia. It took a further 8 years for the Algerian Rugby Federation (FAR) to be formed for them to play their first official match in 2015. In December 2016 they officially became a member of Rugby Africa and competed in the Bronze Cup (the third and bottom tier of African rugby) for the first time last year, winning promotion to the Silver Cup after beating Zambia.
Image result for malik hamadache
Algerian international Malik
Hamadache playing for France XV
against the All Blacks last November

However they still as of yet are not an official member of World Rugby so do not have a World Ranking (they hope to finally become one at some point this year). It is for that reason players who have so far represented them are not cap tied which has allowed Pau tighthead prop Malik Hamadache, who made his debut for Algeria in 2010, to remain on the selection radar for France.

However one thing that was notable is the amount of French players of Algerian heritage there are right now in the Top 14 or Pro D2. Especially at tighthead prop where there is Malik Hamadache (Pau), Mohamed Haouas (Montpellier), Yassin Boutemmani (Perpignan), Karim Kouider (Béziers), Sofiane Chellat (Massy), or the first choice France tighthead Rabah Slimani (Clermont), one of the leading scrummagers in the world.

Indeed a fantasy French Algerian XV is actually very good and would have a strong chance of doing very well in the context of African rugby or indeed against almost anyone outside Tier 1.

1. Hamza Kaabeche (Lyon, Top 14)
2. Issam Hamel (Racing 92, Top 14)
3. Rabah Slimani (Clermont, Top 14)
4. Swan Rebbadj (Toulon, Top 14)
5. Johan Aliouat (Biarritz, Pro D2)
6. Frédéric Medves (Blagnac, Fédérale 1)
7. Saïd Hireche (Brive, Pro D2)
8. Jonathan Best (Béziers, Pro D2)
9. Sadek Deghmache (Perpignan, Top 14)
10. Johan Bensalla (Valence d'Agen, Fédérale 1)
11. Julien Caminati (Castres, Top 14)
12. François Herry (Nevers, Pro D2)
13. Maxime Mermoz (Toulouse, Top 14)
14. Sofiane Guitoune (Toulouse, Top 14)
15. Kylan Hamdaoui (Stade Français, Top 14)

That team has a strong tight five and outside backs, along with a highly experienced veteran back row that in fact all already played international rugby for Algeria. The sole position with no significant high level experience is fly half.

Of course the likes of Slimani, Mermoz, or Guitoune can never play for Algeria (unless they were to use the Olympic loophole) and others unlikely to, so fielding a team that strong is fantasy.

But there is clearly a base of Algerian qualified talent that appears to be much broader and at a higher level than that of other North African teams. So it raises the question of whether they could be a team that could improve the level of the Africa Gold Cup and offer a sterner challenge to Namibia in time for RWC 2023 (which would essentially be a home tournament for them if they were to reach it) if they were to persuade a number of those players who do remain eligible for selection to represent them. That certainly seems to be their aim.

That would also raise the question of how a nation with essentially zero homegrown talent (an Algerian domestic league was only formed last year) would be received by possible rivals who have developed their own talent. And whether this is simply taking the short term Rugby League route to strengthening international rugby and discouraging towards those investing resources into longer term development.

But whatever your thoughts on that, a Union going from literally nothing to challenging for a World Cup spot would certainly be an unusual story to follow. It will be interesting to see how Les Lionceaux fare in their upcoming Africa Silver Cup matches against Senegal (8 July) & Ivory Coast (11 July) in Toulouse. If they win both those they would be favourites in a playoff (likely against Madagascar) to gain promotion to the top tier of African rugby only three years after their first official test match.