West Indies shape up to the oval ball


The sound of a competitive rugby match came as a surprise to those wandering the green expanse of the Queen's Park Savannah, the world's biggest roundabout, which is the pounding heart of Trinidad's capital, Port of Spain.

This is the homeland of Dwight Yorke and his good friend Brian Lara, whose new mansion, perched on a green hill overlooking the city, holds awe-struck admirers in its imperious gaze.

Football and cricket are the sports here, on the most southerly of the glittering necklace of Caribbean islands.

Trinidad, unlike neighbouring Tobago, may not be among the prettiest of the West Indian islands, but it is the most urbanised, bustling and party-minded.

A plethora of satellite dishes have brought with them a growing awareness of North American sports, especially basketball, but also baseball and American football. But rugby? Certainly.

The game popularised on the island by expat sailors and oil workers is back on the school curriculum and undergoing something of an unlikely revival, not only in Trinidad but throughout the Caribbean. And last month, just off the in the grounds of Fatima College, the 12th annual International Rugby Sevens Tournament was took place.

Brian Stollmeyer, son of the late West Indies cricket captain Jeffrey, is assistant secretary of the Caribbean Rugby Football Union, and he provided us with an exclusive. "I can tell you that it has just been decided to form a West Indies rugby team who will attempt to qualify for the 2003 World Cup.

"People in Britain sometimes forget that the islands of the Caribbean are individual, autonomous countries. The concept of the West Indies exists only in terms of the cricket team - and, from this year, the rugby team also.

"The players are most likely to come from the strongest two countries, which are Trinidad and Bermuda; Bermuda beat Trinidad in the final of the Caribbean Championships in the Bahamas last year. But there will also be competition from Martinique, Guadeloupe, St Vincent, Barbados and Guyana."

There is something Welsh-sounding about the fast, lilting speech pattern of the Trinidadian, but, at the Sevens, Irish and Scottish voices could also be heard. Ian Jeffrey, 38 and from Edinburgh, who represented Scotland at under-21 level, came here in March as the Trinidad and Tobago Rugby Football Union's development officer.

"The potential here is huge," he says. "There are some wonderful fast, strong athletes in the Caribbean, and in Trinidad, which is the most cosmopolitan of the islands with a nice cultural and ethnic mix, there is no difficulty finding big, heavy 285lb props, or faster, more agile players for the wing and centre."

Three Trinidad-born Irishmen, the O'Farrell brothers, provide the fulcrum of the national side. Captain Kevin plays scrum-half, Brendan is stand-off or centre and Sean is stand-off or full-back.

Jeffrey adds: "We have the resources and we have the enthusiasm. But we have to work on the technique. When it comes to rucking and scrummaging they are still a bit naive. It is difficult to see Trinidad and Tobago taking on Italy, let alone New Zealand or South Africa, at the moment, but a combined West Indies team could cause a few upsets."

Another Scot, Roy Purves (55), also from Edinburgh, who came to Trinidad as a British Telecom employee 13 years ago, is now tournament organiser of the Trinidad Sevens. "It started in 1987, with local clubs and teams from four other islands. Since then the tournament has been played annually in December with teams coming from progressively further afield."

The Reivers, a representative team from the borders of Scotland, started the real influx of foreign teams in 1989. They won the trophy in three consecutive years, between 1991 and 1993, and were runners-up to the local Caribs team in 1994.

Last year, an injury-hit Reivers side were easily overpowered by the tournament's clear favourites, the Australian Legends, who included players from the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. In the final the Legends were surprisingly beaten by Africanada, a powerful team of Canadian internationals and South African provincial players.

The most entertaining team of all, however, failed to qualify for the latter stages of the main competition and competed instead for the Calabash trophy. The local, colourful farian side, Rainbow RFC, led by Rudolpho Jack, even won a couple of matches.

A sardonic observer, Carib beer in hand, quipped: "They won by pot luck - and more pot than luck!"