The Turks are Coming! Another force in world rugby?

I come from a rugby-mad country. New Zealanders love sport in general. We are lucky to be born in a country where nature is kind – the weather is mild and there is plenty of open space. Children have the opportunity to choose from an unlimited range of physical activities, but the Number One choice is, and always has been, rugby football.

When I was a kid at primary school, there were two choices for a boy: play rugby, or be a ‘poofter’ (if you don’t know the word, look it up). These days, there are far more options available, and NZ has produced champions in almost every kind of sport, from lawn bowls to boxing; from speedway racing to yachting; from field hockey to middle distance running, rowing, kayaking and putting the shot. The NZ men’s soccer team competed in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, finishing unbeaten in their group, ahead of Italy. The men’s basketball team performed creditably in the recent World Basketball Championships in Turkey.

However, NZ has a small population, and it is not possible to compete consistently with the top countries in the world in every sport. From time to time a world-beating player or team appears, but we may have to wait many years to achieve the same success again. This is true in every sport – except rugby. Rugby is king of sports in New Zealand, and the honour of the nation is carried on the broad shoulders of our national rugby team, the All Blacks. When the All Blacks play against another country, it is far more than a mere sporting event – the result may be the cause of nationwide rejoicing or mourning.

Bleeding for his country –
and the William Webb Ellis Trophy
But not all matches are of equal importance. Apart from New Zealand, there is one other country for which rugby is the number one sport. And I use the word ‘sport’ here advisedly. The other country is South Africa, and the rivalry between these two countries can be compared to the televised bouts of ‘World Wrestling Entertainment’, except rather more serious and infinitely less theatrical. When the All Blacks emerged victorious from their most recent match with the South African Springboks, the NZ coach, Graham Henry, had this to say about his team: ‘These are the guys I would want to have beside me in a war!’ And I’m sure he wasn’t joking. When it comes to smiling, Henry would make the Turkish football coach, Fatih Terim, look like a stand-up comic.

Speaking of the ‘Imperator’ and the Turkish national football team brings me, in fact to the point of this blog. I read an article in my Turkish newspaper the other day, in which the president of the Youth and Sports Development Council announced that they were intending to introduce rugby to Turkish youth – and my heart skipped a beat. The rugby-playing nations of the world have managed to keep their game out of the hands of the Turks – until now! It could be the beginning of the end. My pick is that, if the Turks really get into the game, they’ll have a fair chance of getting their name on that William Webb Ellis trophy by 2019. ‘Yeah, sure!’ I hear you say. But listen up . . .

If there’s one nation on Earth that knows about war, it’s the Turks. If you had to choose a group of guys to have on your side in the event of one, you could do a lot worse than pick a bunch of Turks. Look at a list of the largest empires in world history. The Ottoman Empire comes in at No. 5. If you’re prepared to relax your definition of ‘Turk’ a little to include the Mongols, they’re actually at No. 2; and pretty obviously you don’t build an empire of that size without doing a fair amount of fighting. In fact, if it hadn’t been for some pretty desperate resistance by Hapsburg forces in 1529 and 1683, the Ottomans might well have conquered Vienna and made major inroads into the heartland of Europe.

A glance back further into history reveals that this Ottoman threat to Europe was no surprise. Before the Turkish emir Osman founded the Ottoman dynasty in 1299, Turks had been fighting as hired warriors in the armies of most major regional powers for several centuries. The Persians, Egyptians, Byzantines, Venetians, and even, interestingly (and, of course, more recently), the United States of America, have all availed themselves of Turkish mercenaries at one time or another.

In the 70 years from 1853 to 1923, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and finally disintegrated, its people fought no fewer than seven major wars, beginning with the Crimean War, and ending with the War of Independence, out of which emerged the modern republic of Turkey. Of course, apart from the last named war, there weren’t a lot of successes for the Turks to boast of in that period – but for sure, they weren’t short of fighting practice. If the British hadn’t swallowed their own rhetoric in the 19th Century about the Ottoman Empire being the ’Sick Man of Europe’, they might have been a little less sanguine about their chances of success in the Gallipoli invasion of 1915. The Turks may have been short of technology, but they remained dangerous foes when backed into a corner.

Coming up to the present day, there is still universal compulsory military service for all male citizens of Turkey. Furthermore, it is not a mere token training. The majority of young men serve fifteen months in the armed forces, and many of them see action in the east of the country in the on-going struggle with Kurdish insurgents.

However, Graham Henry’s remarks notwithstanding, rugby is a sport – a fact attested to by the intention of the International Olympic Committee to include it in the Games from 2016. So let me return to my other reasons for thinking that Turkey may well become a force to be reckoned with.

Turks love football. In fact, the word ‘love’ doesn’t really do justice to the emotions that football arouses in the Turkish breast. It’s my opinion that the rivalries between supporters of Turkish football clubs have their roots in the factional riots originating in the chariot races of Ancient Rome, which periodically laid waste the city of Constantinople (old Istanbul, of course). Not only do the supporters of competing Turkish clubs not mingle during a match, but large numbers of uniformed, seriously armed police stand guard to ensure they do not come to blows, or worse.

However, the football that inspires this fanaticism is not rugby. It is, of course, the ‘poofter’ variety played with a round ball, indulged in by the misguided majority of the world’s nations, in which players hurl themselves to the turf in paroxysms of agony when an opponent approaches within spitting distance. Turks are, actually, quite good at this pansy version of football, though their results on the world stage tend to be somewhat erratic. It’s my opinion that one of the chief reasons for this is that Turks are not very good at feigning injury, and are more likely to stoically refrain from showing weakness in competitive situations.

Nevertheless, the Turkish national soccer/football team did finish 3rd in the 2002 FIFA World Cup – a creditable performance which put them in the same company as international powerhouses, Brazil and Germany. According to that newspaper article I mentioned earlier, the Turkish Sports Development people have recognised the need for large skilful athletes in fielding a rugby team. Wrestling and handball are two important sports in Turkey, and they suggest that similar talents are useful in rugby too. Further, they are focusing on the recruitment of players two metres in height, 110 kg in weight, capable of running 100 metres in around 13 seconds.

One thing that struck me when I first came to Turkey was how many short men there were. However, in a country of 70 million people, there is a wide range of body shapes and sizes, and a Turk by the name of Sultan Kösen recently entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s tallest man. In the World Basketball Championships (a sport unsympathetic to normal-sized human beings), held last month, the Turkish Men’s team finished runners-up to the USA. We may safely assume that they won’t have a problem finding fifteen guys large enough to foot it with the man-monsters of the other rugby-playing nations.

I want to finish with a brief anecdote from my early days in Turkey. When I first came to this country, I took up a position teaching English in a high school in a suburb of Istanbul. My students were of no great intellectual stature, but they were cheerful, outgoing and enthusiastic, keen to initiate a ‘green’ foreigner into the intricacies of Turkish culture. One morning, after our lesson ended and we broke for lunch, a group of 16 year-old lads offered to demonstrate for me a popular playground game known as ‘Long Donkey’. Later, of course, I understood that this ‘game’ is totally off-limits in Turkish schools, but at the time I was keen to learn about local customs, and reluctant to hurt the feelings of my pupils. So the lads proceeded to clear a space in the classroom by moving the desks and chairs around, and the game began.

Let me explain how ‘Long Donkey’ is played. Two teams are chosen. The numbers don’t really matter, but let’s say, on this particular day, there were seven a-side. A coin is tossed and one team becomes the ‘donkey’. The leader of the team braces himself in a standing position facing a wall, and the rest of his team bend over and grasp the player in front in a long, scrum-like formation. The other team, meanwhile, withdraw themselves as far away from the ‘donkey’ as possible, and conduct themselves as follows: the first player takes a running jump, aiming to land himself, with as much force as possible, on the back of the ‘donkey’. The object, as you may guess, is to collapse the ‘donkey’, or, failing that, to remain on its back so that, when the next player follows, the combined weight is increased. 

All players in the jumping team take their turn, and, if the ‘donkey’ is collapsed, a point is scored, or not, as the case may be. Team roles are then reversed, and the game continues until the players tire of it, someone is seriously injured, or the police are called, whichever comes first.

Well, luckily I was able to put a stop to my first experience of ‘Long Donkey’ before we went that far – and, fortunately, before any of my Turkish teaching colleagues came on the scene. But ever since that day, I have been wondering what would happen when and if Turks were able to combine their love of football with their enthusiasm for ‘Long Donkey’. It seems that the rugby world is about to find out.

4 thoughts on “The Turks are Coming! Another force in world rugby?

  1. It is great to hear that you played “Uzun Eşek”:)
    As you say, Turks have the fire to play rugby! However, Turkish audience will definetely need time to explore the game – especially the female population. We still don't know what “offside” is after so many years being exposed to soccer through our fathers, brothers and husbands:) We need patience to see a few rugby games until we start enjoying it.
    Thanks for sharing this entertaining article.

  2. Thanks Nilüfer. I think football would be a better game if they got rid of that stupid offside rule! Then they could use the whole field instead of just half of it. I must admit, I didn't actually play Uzun Eşek – just watched my students play.

  3. Omg. Long Donkey… the game that convinced me of the intellectual inferiority of boys and made me fear for the future of our nation, as early as primary school.

    Have any crazy Turkish guys attacked you for calling soccer a pansy sport yet?

  4. Well, my tongue was firmly in my cheek! In fact it's not my opinion – but I'm sure it reflects the attitude of the hard-core rugby fraternity in New Zealand. Don't you think those primary school classmates of yours would have enjoyed Long Donkey more if they could have added a ball to the mix?

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