Grenada Rugby World 7's


On a cluster of Caribbean islands off the coast of Venezuela, the first roots of rugby union are beginning to emerge in a country famed for its spice. With the nation’s strongest man in the line-up, Grenada have made a quiet entrance into the world of rugby.


The Spice Isles of Grenada have all the Caribbean credentials you could want: the perfect beaches and purest, bluest waters, with a backdrop of rolling tropical hillsides inhabited by myriad wildlife from monkeys and possums to hummingbirds and armadillos.


Little more than 400km off the coast of Venezuela, twenty islands, islets and rocks in the Caribbean make up Grenada, whose nickname has been earned due to its harvest of, among other spices, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. The latter even adorns the national flag.


Columbus ‘discovered’ it in 1498, but before then its indigenous people came from South America. The Spanish made their mark, if only due to them naming the place after their own Granada of Andalusia.


But after that, the Spanish largely stepped aside as the territory flitted between the French and British, before the latter took a grip through the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. They didn’t let go for the best part of 200 years, until the country gained independence in 1974.



Grenada still has the scars from what’s gone before, not least Hurricane Ivan which ripped through the Caribbean in 2004, killing 34, and leaving 60,000 people homeless. But the beauty of Grenada has helped it make a comeback through tourism – the Annandale waterfalls, the Grand Etang National Park, and of course the monkeys and all that good Caribbean stuff.


Rugby is perhaps an unlikely addition to the tourist attraction list of Grenada. Because, despite all that Anglo-French influence, as is the case across the Caribbean, rugby has never enjoyed much of a footprint, unlike its equally confusing sporting stablemate, cricket.


We find ourselves in the country’s national cricket stadium, a colosseum-like setting, at the tail end of the rainy season. Beneath a canopy of rolling cloud that ceremoniously dumps a tepid shower every so often before the sun comes back out to dry us off, the inaugural Grenada Rugby World 7s tournament is taking place.



On the east side of the stadium, there is a balcony that has been turned into a makeshift commentary box, from which the tournament’s officials and organising members watch on. Among them is George Nicholson, a man who has worn many hats in the world of Caribbean rugby. Having captained his home nation, Barbados, in 1999, he went on to play against the likes of Canada and the USA; became the president of the Barbados Rugby Football Union between 2008 and 2014; and even acted as assistant referee for Craig Joubert in the first qualifying match of RWC 2015. Today, though, he is the president of Rugby Americas North 7s or RAN 7s.


RAN is one of World Rugby’s six regional associations and the governing body of 21 unions that include all the rugby-playing countries in the Caribbean. In addition to his work at RAN, George is also the coordinating manager of Rugby World 7s, the longest running club rugby sevens tournament in the region. It originated as the Caribbean 7s before being renamed the Rugby Barbados World 7s and now the Grenada Rugby World 7s, or GRW7s. “It started off in Trinidad in the mid 80s,” he explains. “We moved it to Tobago in 2010, where we were for five years, then we spent three years in Barbados from 2016 to 2019. And now post-Covid, we are here.”


George’s passion for Caribbean rugby is evident in everything he says and does. “Having a club sevens tournament in the Caribbean,” he continues, “allows regional players to experience that higher standard of rugby, form links and benefit from the opportunities that may arise from being noticed by overseas coaches.”



The decision to bring the competition to Grenada, an island where rugby is not a widely known sport, may seem like an unusual one, but a necessary venture if it is to grow in the wider region. “It is rare that you find an international tournament being staged in a country with no history of the sport,” George admits. “But it’s a fantastic opportunity for rugby in Grenada to gain exposure.”


It also presents a unique opportunity to boost the sport tourism of the island. “We want to show the teams coming here and the people that follow them what Grenada has to offer,” he continues. “We want to promote the island, the culture, and the destination.


“Grenada has a lot of natural beauty, there’s an abundance of fruit and spices, the people are friendly – It is a special place.”


For George, the enthusiasm of the Grenadians to adopt the sport and welcome the tournament has been clear from the get-go. “The Minister of Sports told me he wants to play,” he chuckles. “Even though he has never tried it before. When we spoke to the education ministry, they were keen to get it into schools, I’ve even seen it on the national television a few times.”



George also recognises that like the rest of the region, the people possess many of the attributes needed to be top quality rugby players. “The Caribbean is known for speed,” he continues. “But they have also got the size, agility and footwork – you’ve seen some of their sidesteps!”


“I think Grenadians are perfect for sevens,” agrees Carrim Browne, a man born in the Virgin Islands and now president of Grenada’s union, on a mission to unlock the rugby potential of his mother’s home island. “Because of how fast it’s played, the fitness required, the physicality – we naturally have all of those things.”


Having spent most of his life in the United States, Carrim grew up wanting to play ‘soccer’, or become a track athlete. But for one reason or another, neither option worked out. “It was my little brother, Dasante, who put the battery in my back to play rugby,” he explains. “He had started playing before me. I went to watch him play for the Black Dragons at the Las Vegas 7s tournament, that was my first introduction to rugby. He picked up a couple of injuries, so he only plays sparingly now.”


Carrim adopted the sport as a way to keep fit and to meet new people. But, before long, his competitive nature had taken over. He started playing fifteens for the Orlando Griffins in 2016 and now plays for the San Jose Seahawks who are the oldest division two club in the States.



“I knew I had to try my best to play this game at the highest level.”


Today as well as being the president of the fledgling union, he’s also vice-president, secretary, and treasurer, to keep him busy as he heads towards retirement. “In May of 2021 I ruptured my Achilles,” he painfully recalls. “I was 31 at the time, and I thought to myself, ‘I can’t keep doing this’.


“But I wanted to give back to the game when I was done. I thought about coaching, but then after watching the RAN Super 7s I thought, ‘why is no one playing rugby in Grenada?’”


The RAN tournament, which is hosted in a different Americas North country each year, includes 28 teams from twelve RAN countries across senior men, women, and age-grade divisions. The tournament is the pinnacle of sevens in the region, however Grenada is currently absent from the list of participating teams. For Carrim, the plan to elevate the island to the same competitive level as its fellow Caribbean nations starts with capturing the attention of the people living there. “At the start of 2022 I got in touch with a PE teacher here,” he continues. “He linked me up with people interested in rugby on the island – there weren’t many.


“In May that year we put out a flyer saying, ‘if you want to try playing rugby, come to Morne Rouge playing field at 6pm this Saturday’.”



Fifteen people showed up. But before long, the numbers began to grow and within three months of the first session, they started to average between 50 and 75 on a weekly basis. The rapid growth caught the attention of George and before long, he had reached out to gauge the possibility of hosting a Rugby World 7s tournament there. “I didn’t see why we couldn’t,” continues Carrim. “I contacted the sports minister, the tourism association, did everything that was required for this to succeed.


“That was in August and September, now we’re in December and look where we are.”


Surrounded by a horseshoe of mountainsides populated by almond, callaloo and breadfruit trees among other greenery, the cricket stadium in which the tournament is taking place lies only a kilometre inland from St Georges’ Bay, where the water of the Caribbean Sea laps at the shores of the island’s capital. Adjacent to the cricket oval is the Kirani James Stadium, Grenada’s other premium sporting facility, named after the sprinter who brought home Olympic silver and bronze in the 400m metres for his country.



From that first training session to which little more than a dozen people turned up, Grenada now has its own embryonic national team and is hosting its first official GRW7s tournament. Sixty teams from across the world initially applied to attend, but those were boiled down fourteen in total, seven men’s, and seven women’s.


Today, Carrim is part of the Misfits, a team comprised solely of athletes from the Caribbean with players from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Haiti, Barbados, Mexico and Grenada all present in the squad.


The side is attempting to bring some focus on the talent in the Caribbean, where rugby has had several false starts and never really reached its potential.


Rugby first found itself in the Caribbean in 1900, brought over by British troops stationed in Barbados who played casually among themselves to pass the time.


Barbados formed their own rugby union in 1964, following the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, founded in 1928, and Jamaica who started up in 1946. Today Trinidad and Tobago are highest in the world rankings of any Caribbean nation, currently sitting at 52nd.



The Caribbean’s ‘Six Nations’ is the RAN Championships, the main competitive fifteens event in the region that involves Caribbean and Central America countries, together with a USA South team. Trinidad and Tobago have won the Championships nine times, more than any other nation since the tournament’s inaugural year in 1966.


However, of all the islands, Barbados have come the closest to qualifying for the World Cup. Here, qualification begins with the RAN Championships, which Barbados won for the only time in 2005. They toppled Guyana, a regular in the final, the mighty Trinidad and Tobago and St Lucia to finish top of the South pool and went on to beat the Bahamas 52-3 in the final, to move on to the third round of qualification. They found themselves up against Canada and the USA and, despite their best efforts, only scored three points across the two games, conceding 160 and crashing out of the qualifiers.


Other moves have been made in the abridged form of the game, including Jamaica, who used a team consisting of non-Jamaican-born Jamaicans to become the first Caribbean side to qualify for a sevens Rugby World Cup in 2018. They also appeared in the Commonwealth Games that same year and now are a fixture on the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series.



So, there have been glimmers of hope, but not from Grenada.


Ever-present on the touchline for Carrim’s Misfits is Kimani ‘Kimmo’ Davis, one of the founding members of the team. Kimmo went to college as a basketball player, but soon found rugby was his calling, despite having no background in the sport. His playing career spanned more than two decades, fifteen years of which were spent playing for the New York Village Lions.


“I was brought on board because of my background in education,” he says, explaining how he came to be involved with the Caribbean representative team. “I worked as a behavioural specialist and school administrator in New York – Harlem, the Bronx – for 26 years.”


It was his expertise in teaching and guiding conversations around development that meant Kimmo was brought on board to help set up the team. “We see players from places like Jamaica and Trinidad coming to school in America,” he continues. “They are leaving their homes, taking out visas and applying for loans to chase a career in a sport that’s not even at a professional level yet.



“We want to provide an opportunity for rugby in the Caribbean to grow by encouraging the players to go home and show that they have excelled.”


The mission of the team is simple; not only is the Misfits about helping players obtain international exposure and elite placements in countries like the USA and Canada, but it also wants to boost the development of rugby in the home nations of the Caribbean.


For Kimani, the best possible option to discover new talent and encourage the growth of rugby in places like Grenada is via a setup that gets these athletes playing together for the region, as well as against each other for their islands. “A lot of these guys met for the first time when we got here,” he explains. “And now they’re brothers.”


Kimmo believes that for teams from the Caribbean to compete with more established nations, there needs to be a focus on raising the bar within the region. “Teams from the Caribbean can get better,” he continues. “But they need to improve the overall quality of rugby at home.”



For him, this involves a focus on improving factors such as the provision of facilities and the standard of refereeing to improve the overall quality of the games being played. He also believes there is a lot to be done about the way in which players from developing rugby regions are coached.


“Grenada has potential to be a Fiji,” he says. “It might sound drastic, but I do believe that’s true. A big issue is that when we try to introduce rugby to a new region, we try to teach a certain model instead of the basics.


“We want to give them a space that their raw talent can flourish in without sitting them down and saying, ‘this is what the All Blacks do’.”


The tournament takes place over two days at the beginning of December, and at the midway point of the first, the Misfits face off against the Butchers, a gnarly Welsh invitational side that look like they mean business. Having won their first two matches by comfortable margins, both sides look like they could challenge to win the tournament. This game could be pivotal.



The Butchers are quickly into the ascendancy with two quickfire tries in the first half. Another try in the second makes the score 0-19. But with only two minutes left on the clock the Misfits fire back with a brace, bringing themselves to within five points. Despite a last-gasp effort from the de facto home side, the Butchers hold on. As Carrim and his band of brothers regroup, they are clearly disappointed to have lost, but not disheartened.


Following the clash between the Misfits and the Butchers, the first exhibition match of the tournament is played by the burgeoning Grenada Rugby Union team, otherwise known as the Greenz. The group of eager players split themselves into two sides and face off against each other in a match that is as entertaining as it is frantic. As the Greenz make their way from the field, each player grinning from ear to ear as the piercing sun beats down on their beaded foreheads, I ask one of them what the final score was. “I’m not sure,” he responds. “I lost count.”


There isn’t much concern for the result – these players are simply here for the enjoyment of the game. Among them is a man called Nigel Layne, but he tells us he goes by Beast, or Beast Mode. “I won Grenada’s Strongest Man,” he nonchalantly admits. “Our culture here, we grew up doing farming and agriculture. I think that gives us a lot of natural strength.”



He might not have been told it yet, but Beast is a natural front-row forward. Standing at five-foot something but with shoulders that look like they’d need an angle to get through a doorframe, he is meant for the rugby pitch. “I was online one day,” he continues. “I saw the flyer asking people to come and be part of the Grenada Rugby Union.


“I went the first day and after that, I was hooked. It’s taught me so much about discipline, looking out for each other – it’s like a brotherhood.”


The team have been training together every Saturday since the first session on that playing field next to Morne Rouge beach, one of the finest spots on the island. The numbers have grown dramatically and the range of individuals involved comes from different age groups and different corners of the island. For Nigel, this is clear evidence that rugby in Grenada has the potential to grow. “I think it will get a lot bigger after today,” he says, looking at the hundreds of players and coaches amassed in front of us.


“Right now, we are under the microscope, in the spotlight. We are hoping more people will join us now that they have seen it live.”



The tournament draws to a close with Carrim, Kimmo and the Misfits finishing third, and the Greenz just happy to be playing rugby on the same stage as these elite teams. The focus naturally turns to the future of the sport in Grenada and the wider Caribbean region.


For George Nicholson, growth of the GRW7s tournament is the main objective and something that will contribute to the progress of rugby on the island. “I believe that next year we can have 24 to 32 teams,” he says. “We might need to use both the stadiums here to fit it all in.


“We also hope that engagement from the local people grows. Showing Grenadians how exciting rugby can be is essential to growing the sport here.”


The first instalment of the tournament has already done its part for the future of rugby in Grenada, and George is excited about the GRW7s events in years to come. “The Grenada Rugby Football Union continues to grow on the back of it,” he tells us. “They are looking forward to entering a team in next year’s tournament. With the level of athleticism that exists in our region, my wish is for rugby to become an avenue for success for more of our young, talented athletes.


“Their examples will create the pathway for those who come after them.”


Story by Tyrone Bulger


Pictures by Oli Hillyer-Riley


This extract was taken from issue 21 of Rugby.

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