Afghan rugby novices dreaming of Wales
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan has had the semblance of a national rugby union team for just a few months, but already they are dreaming of a fixture with the red-shirted World Cup men of Wales.
In capital city Kabul, where armed checkpoints are common and the threat of deadly attacks by militants remains part of everyday life, the rugby squad meet before work for two hours of early-morning training.
Their enthusiasm is infectious, their motivation clear.
"We would love to play Wales, they are the spiritual players of the game," said Asad Ziar, chief executive of the Afghanistan Rugby Federation. "We love the way they play."
While Wales were narrowly losing to Australia in the third place play-off at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, the Afghans lined up at a seven-a-side tournament held on soccer pitches in the high-security International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul.
To avoid injures to soldiers on tours of duty, tackling was off-limits, players instead touching the man in possession to block their progress.
Always quick and competitive, if sometimes guilty of ragged handling and loose organization, the young Afghans lost their first match two tries to one against the reigning British army champions.
For a team whose first experience of the game was at a rugby camp held in Kabul in May, the defeat was no disgrace.
"We are the first men of rugby in Afghanistan," said 20-year old player Abdul Ghafar Malikzai. "We're not afraid of the big boys because we are Afghans... We compete very hard."
Afghanistan will apply for membership of the Asian Rugby Football Union at a meeting in November, said Chief Executive Ziar. If they succeed, matches against India and the United Arab Emirates may follow.
"We are hopeful," Ziar added. "I'm sure they understand that we are from a war-torn country so they will ease (financial) restrictions."
With only one current sponsor, he said, the team needs more funding to help with the next steps -- building experience of the 15-a-side game and expanding rugby's base beyond the capital.
"We want to build up teams in Jalalabad, in Herat, to have a domestic competition and get a truly national team," said Steve Brooking, a Briton who acts as technical adviser to the team.
Wearing close-fitting red and blue tops supplied by an Afghan businessman, the team warmed up as a Russian MI-8 helicopter landed and took off again just beyond the base.
Aziz Ahmed, who wears the number 4 jersey and was part of the team which played a full-contact tournament in Pakistan last month, said the more they are tested, the tougher they become.
"Little by little, step by step, the team is improving," he said. "We want to play in Europe -- to play tournaments in other countries."
And, most of all, they are working out daily to be ready for their dream date with Wales.
(Editing by Timothy Collings)