The story of American Mike Ballard and his introduction to rugby union is a unique one, as are his efforts to help the game thrive on an island best known for a series of animated movies by the same name.
The first time I heard about Madagascar’s passion for rugby was a few years ago. A friend of mine had been working in Africa and took some time to visit the country that many of us ended up making our last stand in the board-game ‘Risk’.
While exchanging some money in what he described as a ‘shack’, he spotted an image of Fergus McFadden. Upon further examination he realised it was a Leinster Rugby programme from a match the previous year but what was it doing here? When he enquired, it was explained that one of the employees was obsessed with rugby and when he had visited Dublin, he had jumped at the chance to see a game at the RDS.
The second time I heard about their love of the game is when I heard about Mike Ballard, who is leading a tour party by the name of ‘The Conquistadors’ there in order to provide equipment for local hospitals and rugby clubs. There is also the small matter of taking on the Madagascar national side – ranked 41st in the world – who are warming up for the African Cup.
Mike’s rugby journey to Madagascar is a fascinating tale that is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming in equal measure. He hails from a country where rugby does not thrive in the ‘sleeping giant’ of world rugby, America. There, the sport of rugby union tends to be at the back of a long queue vying for attention, support and funds. His first sporting passions were like those of millions of American children: baseball, American football and er… Olympic wrestling. Rugby was never really an option for him growing up.
When he moved to Abu Dhabi in 2011 to take up a role as a Special Education teacher, Mike thought he would take up rugby for both the physical – he admits he had gotten a little “chunky” – and the social benefits of the game. He recognises the learning curve was a steep one at the Abu Dhabi Harlequins:
“Year one was really hard. By the time I got my head around what I was doing in defense, we would make a turnover and I would go back to square one, not knowing what was happening in offense.”
Despite the testing environment of learning a complex new sport, he thrived and found himself at the coalface in the front row as a prop.
For those unfamiliar with rugby in the Middle East, the standard tends to be high with ex-pats and sometimes ex-pros plying their trade alongside newcomers such as Mike. As a result, the Gulf of Arabia can be a pretty daunting place to cut your teeth in the sport.
This made his level of progress from clueless, but keen fringe player – we all know these players but if you do not, then you probably are that player – to reliable starter for the Harlequins 1st XV, all the more impressive. He even managed to be nominated for Gulf Player of the Year along the way.
What makes Mike’s story all the more compelling is the fact he suffered a life-changing injury when playing in a cup final in 2014. The match was to decide the title of the top club in West Asia and was due to be the culmination of a great year: “The season had been amazing. We won 10 of our matches taking 9 bonus points. We were all ready to go for the final.”
When tackling an opponent early in the first half, he suffered a severe spinal injury that meant he will need the aid of a wheelchair for the rest of his life. It also means he will never again play the game that meant so much to him, where he made so many friends all across the world.
Rugby never lets go of you that easy though.
As he underwent rehab back in the United States, he was inundated with calls, messages and “a non-stop stream of visitors” from his team-mates in the Middle East. As the Mike Ballard Foundation was setup immediately after his injury, his team-mates wanted to support him in any way that they could. In the subsequent months, the Conquistadors were introduced as the Mike Ballard Foundation’s rugby team at the Dubai sevens in 2015. Determined to join his friends and comrades in rugby, Mike set his sights on returning back out to the Middle East to cheer on his friends at this tournament.
It was a fairytale homecoming with the Conquistadors winning their competition and raising enough money to help a team-mate get his life back on track. After this incredible success, Mike made the case that they should now turn their attention towards helping others who are more in need than him by playing the sport that has given them so much.
The foundation’s mission statement is:
“To have a positive impact on people through the sport of rugby union.” Mike was adamant that all this goodwill could not stop here and that he wanted to “pay some of the support and help that [he] had received back.” It was decided that Madagascar, would be an excellent place to bring their message of hope and support through a common passion for rugby.
“90% of the population live on less than $2 a day, and they are crazy about rugby. I mean they have 40,000 registered players”, he informed me when I ask about how they decided upon taking their mission to the 4th largest island in the world.
It is a country that lives in incredible poverty. Drought, famine and cyclones are some of the biblical events these people face on a regular basis. David Smith of the Guardian reported last year that the country has suffered “outbreaks of bubonic plague and polio” in recent years. Wading into all of this is Mike and his team who want to use the island’s great passion – rugby – to make a difference in the lives of their people.
Of course, when I am quick to praise his selfless efforts, he is at pains to push the attention away to others. He explains how their main sponsor, Air Seychelles, are flying the tour party out, transferring all the medical equipment and rugby kit, including 300 pairs of football boots provided by Go Sport.
There is also a stopover in the Seychelles on their way, where they will donate some of the 50 wheelchairs they have amassed. Mike and the team were keen to support both the medical and the rugby communities as they will distribute kit donated from 16 teams all across the Gulf region to the rugby-mad locals.
Working closely alongside the Madagascar Rugby Union, the Conquistadors will be running coaching camps in various clubs that will partake in a sevens competition in the national stadium. This competition, where the kids involved will be wearing the gear generously provided by clubs from all over the Gulf, will be a curtain raiser for the Conquistadors match against the national side in front of 20,000 people.
I can only wish the Conquistadors good luck as a highlights clip on Youtube shows the boys from Madagascar are fast and tough. They lost out to Namibia in qualifying for the Rugby World Cup last year. To attend that tournament and put Madagascar on the rugby map is their main aim. Just when the touring side felt their tasks was not daunting enough, there is also the traditional pre-match Haka the visitors will have to face.
The tourists come from an array of teams across the Gulf that Mike either played with or against; such are the bonds he forged when he took up the sport. The players come from all across the globe with guys from New Zealand, Wales, Australia, England, Ireland and of course, America. Even bag-man Conor Coakley from Gorey, Co. Wexford – the self proclaimed ‘Best Second Row in the Gulf’ – will be lining up in Conquistador colours when he is not looking after the suitcases.
After I concluded my conversation with Mike, I started thinking over other moments of compassion and generosity in rugby. I recalled Tana Umaga putting Colin Charvis in the recovery position when he sustained a huge collision in a match. There was the iconic moment of Sonny Bill Williams’ giving his RWC final medal away to a young fan who had stormed the pitch last year. We often hear about David Pocock’s continued efforts to promote the equality of others. Also the late Jerry Collins who lined out for a local club side Barnstaple after being eliminated early from the 2007 RWC and then wore their team socks playing for the Barbarians later that season.
I cannot help but think of Mike and the Conquistadors, with their mission to Madagascar, in the very same light as they embody the very best values of the game.
David Sharkey, Pundit Arena