When the staff of the Madagascar women's rugby sevens team changed three months ago, the players quickly realised that hard work lay ahead.
But then came a major coaching change and the preparation for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 in Cape Town suddenly became the focus.
"What's changed is that we've introduced a lot of discipline; discipline is what we were lacking a bit. We taught the players humility, hard work, and a sense of sacrifice to reach their goals. No sacrifice, no results.”
Behind these words is Zaka Ravelonanosy, the team's strength coach and assistant coach, and a former soldier of 19 years. In the new staff, there is also a former policeman. The staff demanded a focused effort from the team. "But they understood why," says Ravelonanosy today, smiling.
The Jemmal tournament
Everything was leading up to the Rugby Africa Women's Sevens tournament in April in Jemmal, Tunisia, a qualifier for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 in South Africa. In addition to Tunisia, eight other teams took part in the tournament: Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Zambia and South Africa.
"There was a lot of excitement, but also a lot of pressure because qualifying for a World Cup is a big deal," recalls Ravelonanosy. "Deep down we knew we had a chance, but we weren't going to shout it from the rooftops! We put the players under pressure and tried to keep them that way so they would have maximum confidence. We kept telling them that they were playing for the honour of the country, that qualifying would be historic. But that all the other teams had the potential to qualify too.”
The staff ramped up the training schedule, with training now taking place four times per week.
There was one main objective: to win and qualify for Cape Town. In Pool C, the Ladies Makis beat Ghana (29-5), then Tunisia (7-5) and finally Zambia (14-10) in the quarter-finals. Everything would be decided in the semi-final against Uganda.
Madagascar opened the scoring after two minutes but Uganda took advantage of a yellow card to seize the momentum and take the lead through a converted try, resulting in a 7-5 lead at the break.
"At the break, we told them to keep playing, not to get nervous, to stop playing individually and to play collectively. They regrouped, they looked each other straight in the eyes. On the edge of the pitch, we remained lucid, we continued to give them instructions. We didn't want to give them the idea that we didn't believe. We had to believe. They dug deep that day," recalls Ravelonanosy.
With five minutes to go, Uganda still dominated, enjoying more yellow card advantages that left Madagascar with only five players. At 12-5, the rest of the game looked dire for the Ladies Makis. But in the last minute, the team was complete again and the unexpected happened in the last action. The Ladies Makis managed to even the score and send the match into extra time.
By scoring the first try in the ensuing sudden death, Madagascar won 17-12 and qualified for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022.
In 2021, they had participated in the Olympic repechage tournament in Monaco, but had failed to qualify for Tokyo 2020. Only four players from the current team made that trip and were able to benefit from the experience.
An explosion of joy and tears brought the team and staff even closer together. They had made it. There was only one match left to play, against South Africa, another historic moment for this young team. As Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 hosts, and having pre-qualified through the last tournament in 2018, South Africa had automatically qualified, meaning Madagascar claimed the one spot up for grabs in the Rugby Africa Women's Sevens tournament by making it to the final. Madagascar ran South Africa mighty close in that final, narrowly losing 15-14.
"This qualification has brought us into the world of sevens," says Ravelonanosy. "We are proud and humbled at the same time because after all, this is only the first step of a very long journey. Now we need to be consistent in our results.”
In the days that followed, the Ladies Makis were immediately elevated to the rank of stars as this historic qualification left its mark. There was a great deal of pride in the camp.
Dozens of media requests, a reception by the president himself who promised a financial contribution and the renovation of the capital's stadium to international standards so that it could host world tournaments materialised.
Then, a more ambitious project began to take shape: to organise a rugby sevens tournament with the other countries in order to increase the number of matches, to give players more game time and to improve all the teams with the objective of one day joining the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Target: Cape Town
In the meantime, there is a tournament to prepare for - Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022.
The Ladies Makis are back in training. Thanks to their qualification, they are already benefitting from better support, in key aspects such as nutrition. "Some of them cannot afford to eat three meals a day," says Ravelonanosy. Basic equipment such as tackle shields have also been supplied to help with training
With the Ladies Makis 15s and sevens teams well aligned, players freely crossover between the formats to increase the strength in depth of the squad and therefore drive up standards. There will even be a three-week lockout period in the build-up to the major tournament. In July and August, the intensity of the preparation will be at its highest.
A new era begins for those who have already marked the history of Malagasy sevens rugby. "These 12 players will have their names engraved at the entrance of the stadium," promises Zaka Ravelonanosy.
Photo credit: Madagascar Rugby Federation