Sevens has put Madagascar on the rugby map. After a remarkable first appearance at Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town last year, the team then took part in the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series in April 2023.
These two events did not produce the best results for the Lady Makis (ninth in the Challenger Series), but they did show they can perform at the highest level.
The staff of the Lady Makis XV, led by head coach Alain Randriamihaja, did not miss a single moment. And they now dream of taking the Malagasy women's 15s team to the highest level in the world.
Their goal has already been set: Rugby World Cup 2025. And to achieve that aim, it will be crucial to win the Rugby Africa Women's Cup Division 1 2023, which gets underway this weekend, in order to qualify for WXV 2.
Given the top five non-qualified teams at the end of WXV 2024 earn a ticket to England 2025, doing so would increase their chances of making their Rugby World Cup debut considerably. Whoever finishes as runner-up at the end of the Division 1 campaign will take their place in WXV 3.
"This tournament is a gateway for us, it's an inevitable stage and we hope to emerge victorious," insists manager Berthin Joseph Rafalimanana, who is taking things step by step.
"Rugby sevens has led the way and now it's time for the 15s to seek qualification for the World Cup."
The first stage of this great adventure will be played in the next few days at the Stade Makis in Antananarivo.
THREE TOUGH OPPONENTS
To decide who will represent Africa in WXV 2, Madagascar are scheduled to play Kenya, 25th in the World Rugby Women's Rankings powered by Capgemini, Cameroon (29th) and South Africa (13th). Three big opponents for the young Madagascar team who are ranked 28th.
Although women's rugby has been growing on the island since the early 1990s, it is only four years ago that the Lady Makis played their first-ever test.
On 9 August, 2019, the Lady Makis lost to Kenya in that first match in the inaugural Rugby Africa Women's Cup, which counted in the qualification process for Rugby World Cup 2021.
Six other test matches followed. After a draw against Uganda in 2019, Madagascar are currently on a four-match winning streak, including two against Kenya.
Defeated once by South Africa (73-0 on 13 August, 2019 in their second ever test), it will be the first time that Madagascar play Cameroon.
"It is a nation that has just come up and that we do not know. But if this team manages to get into the last four, maybe there will be a surprise with them," said Rafalimanana.
THE MAKIS, AN EMBLEM THAT CHARACTERISES THEIR GAME
To prepare themselves as well as possible, the staff gathered the group for a training camp that started on 15 May, with two high intensity sessions each day but with no specific game plan, according to the staff.
"We don't have exact strategies against the three opponents," confirms Rafalimanana, himself a former coach of the national team and an expert on the Malagasy game.
"The essence of the Malagasy game," he says, "is that it is based on improvisation. Improvisation is the characteristic of the Malagasy game. Our real style is to play in a spread-out manner. But as all the opponents now know our style, we work on small passing combinations. We try to surprise the opponent. We rely on patience and counter-attacking, on the defence.
"You know, Malagasy people have a hard life here. We have endurance and we're a bit of a sprinter too. Do you know the Makis? That's our name and that's what characterises us: aggressiveness, fighting spirit and intelligence. It's our DNA."
THE ASSETS OF THE LADY MAKIS
To help them in their quest for both international recognition and a chance to reach the pinnacle of rugby, the staff welcomed a top recruit on 14 May with the arrival of Jeanne Sorrin Marie Louise.
An expatriate in France, the Malagasy-born player plays with Racing 92 and wanted to bring all her experience to her national team.
"The contact was made on a click," Rafalimanana says. "It was on Facebook that we found out. She contacted us and agreed to pay for her trip and her expenses. That's our problem with expatriates, we don't have the funds to bring them here. And she confirmed to us that she could come.
"Everything is going very well; it's as if we had always played together. She's multi-talented, but I think we're going to let her play mainly in the back-row.
"She will play at least two games. She has to adapt to our play and our climate. At the moment we are waiting for winter, but it is still very hot."
The other plus in the team, Natiora Tsinjo Raharinirina, captain until the end of last season, has been called in as an assistant to support the quiet Randriamihaja.
Her experience at the top level as a sevens and 15s player since 2010 is invaluable.
According to staff, the group is ready. "Usually, during each preparation, there are always injuries," says the manager. "But in this team, for the moment we have no injuries! That's a good sign for us."
Finally, the last asset of the team will be its fans. "After South Africa, we have the biggest crowd," says Rafalimanana.
"A simple local championship match on weekends, we manage to have 10,000 people. So for the girls, we'll have a big crowd.”