Making the hard yards: rugby football in Turkey


As the 2015 Rugby World Cup kicks off today, Anadolu Agency meets the men and women throwing the oval ball in Turkey

By Nilay Kar Onum

ISTANBUL – “Football is a gentleman’s game played by ruffians, and rugby is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen,” runs a British idiom, contrasting soccer with rugby.

Given Turkey’s love of ball games – coupled with its international success in uncompromising sports like wrestling – you would expect the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England and Wales today to have gripped the attention of Turkish sport fans.

Not so.

Although it is perhaps unfair to compare one of Turkey’s most fanatically followed sports – football – with the more low-key profile enjoyed by rugby, Anadolu Agency asked some of the game’s officials and players what fuels their passion for the oval ball.

The history of rugby in Turkey dates back to the late 19th century when some foreigners in the Ottoman Empire played the game among themselves.

Istanbul-based sports club Fenerbahce founded a rugby team in 1945, but it only lasted for two years; the sport then halted for a long period of time.

1999 saw a Turkish rugby revival when three men came together to found the Istanbul Ottomans RFC, inspiring others to team up.

Bakirkoy RC, Kadikoy RC, Samsun RC and the Cyprus Pumas followed suit. Finally, Turkey had a rugby league in 2007 and formed a Rugby Federation in 2011. The federation became affiliated to Rugby Europe in 2012.

The country’s national rugby union team first played in 2012, against Slovakia in Bratislava, running out convincing 31-5 winners. The team went on to again beat Slovakia in 2013, winning by an even bigger margin of 55-3.

There are now 26 Turkish rugby clubs; 10 of them are female side and some universities, like Ankara-based ODTU, have their own squads.

Many of the rugby players in the national team are Turks living in Europe, mainly France, England, and Germany. Fifteen of the 23 national-squad players are living in Europe while only eight members are in Turkey.

Some of the national side’s overseas star players are: 25-year-old Huseyin Sasmaz of France-based Saint-Nazaire club; Halil Gozukucuk, 29, of the Staffordshire-based Burntwood club and Ramazan Kilickaya, 36, of France-based Stade Clermontois.

Although rugby is not still a very well-known sport in Turkey, interest has been increasing.

Huseyin Gazi Sonmez, general coordinator of Turkish Rugby Federation says: “People who wrestled or did judo earlier are much more interested in rugby.”

Twenty-three-year-old Mirac Erturk, a Turkish international player, is one of these. Erturk, who plays for Samsun RC in Turkey’s Black Sea region, wrestled for nine years before his interest turned to rugby at university three years ago.

“When I first played rugby, I enjoyed it so much and did not want to give it up,” Erturk says, adding: “I suggest everyone who is keen on sports, experience this game at least once.”

Ayse Aygun, 23, who has been the captain of Turkey’s female national rugby team for three years, says awareness of the game has been growing:

“During my first years in this sport, people around me did not have any idea about what I was playing. Now, at least, they know what kind of sport it is and are interested in this game after me,” says the Olympian Rugby player.

Many Turks are quite prone to this game and their futures are promising, according to Engin Yuksel, who trains the Turkish national side.

“We, as Turks, are brave and competitive people. Rugby is a game which needs courage, power and durability. I think we have got all the features rugby demands.”

Aygun, the female rugby captain, agrees.

“In opposition to many people’s idea that rugby is not suitable for women, I think it quite suits Turkish women – who are strong and enduring,” she says.

“Rugby keeps you awake and makes you ready for everything. It is the part of rugby that I like most,” she adds. “I believe it will develop much more in our country soon.”

The Turkish national team’s next match will be against Norway in Antalya on October 10, and then away to Bosnia-Herzegovina on October 17.

The national team’s aim is to win these matches, but its real aim is to be able to take part in the rugby event at the Rio Summer Olympics next year.