As we inch forward to the official opening of the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series 2023, Jamaica is ready to take to the field head-on.
The tournament, a replica of the Olympic Games format, will be held across April 20-22 and 28-30 in Stellenbosch, South Africa with 12 men’s and women’s teams. The men’s competition for Jamaica includes Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Korea, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
The winner of the Men’s Challenger Series will enter a four-team play-off at the HSBC London Sevens in May 2023 together with the teams placed 12th-14th after ten rounds of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, with the winner of the playoff achieving Sevens World Series 2024 status.
Bruce Martin, Jamaica Program 7s Technical Director, says his men ramped up their training regime in the months leading up to the event and are focused on one thing – winning. “Although we are not the favorites on paper, we are backing ourselves and we know we will beat all the teams in our pool, going into the quarter finals,” he says.
Martin, a former national and international player, is committed to developing rugby in Jamaica and to recruiting young players to broaden and elevate the standard of local rugby.
Bruce started playing rugby at 11-years-old at St. Catherine High School in Jamaica and progressed within the sport very quickly.
“Rugby had started as a punishment for troubled children like myself from the ghetto – but that punishment turned into a reality and a lifelong journey,” he says. “I started to learn the game, the discipline, the integrity, the solidarity, the friendship, and the brotherhood that it brings, and by the time I was 14-years-old, I was on the Jamaican Under 19s National team that toured Canada.”
Martin played right through High School, and in local clubs, and was in the Senior National set up by the time he was 17-years-old.
“At age 18-years-old, I was playing both 7s and 15s, and played in the first 7s Caribbean Championship Tournament in Trinidad,” he says.
About three years later, Bruce left Jamaica for the USA and started playing for clubs like Boston Old Gold Rugby Club, New York Cougars Caribbean Team, and Florida Fort Lauderdale Knights, before joining the US Army.
“I continued my rugby career stationed in Germany for the Army team, as well as in Japan, Hawaii, and in New York City,” he says. “So, I remained involved with rugby and Jamaican rugby as well because the national team would travel to the US and I would always help out, whether it was sponsorship, providing lunch, helping with jerseys; just helping out in any way I could.”
Martin says that through his travels, he realized that Jamaica had huge potential in the international rugby scene.
“We have the diaspora all over the world,” he says. “When you look at every country, there is always a Jamaican living there. We know that we have players living all over the world with Jamaican parents or grandparents, and that we can do better in rugby when we expand our recruitment to target this player pool as well.”
In 2014, Bruce was approached by the Chairman of Jamaica Rugby to assist with this mission.
“I came with a plan of how we will change the culture of Jamaican rugby, how we will qualify for the World Cup and the Pan Am Games, and we just started the journey from there,” he says. “We found Jamaicans living in the UK and invited them to Jamaica to train and to get their Jamaican passports through their lineage. We continued our recruitment drive and were determined to grow the game to new heights.”
In 2017, both the men’s and women’s teams qualified to go to Hong Kong.
“We did not win a game, but it was a priceless experience and where more international players with Jamaican heritage saw us,” he says. “I would stay up late going through clubs in Europe, Australia, and Canada asking different players if they had a Jamaican parent or grandparent. I was determined to tap into that demographic and attract them to rugby in Jamaica.”
In fact, Martin says that in 2017, a team went to Mexico with 90% ‘overseas’ Jamaican players.
“We finally won the RAN Sevens tournament in Mexico and qualified for the Commonwealth Games 2018, and our first World Cup,” he says. “We were the first Caribbean country to do so, and since then, we have not lost a game to a Caribbean team or to Mexico.”
Taking on the Challenge
Bruce says after Jamaica qualified for the Challenger Series in Mexico, the team started immediate preparations for South Africa, including reaching out to Fijian former rugby union player and World Rugby Hall of Fame member, Waisale Serevi.
“We have built a good relationship with Waisale Serevi over the years and he is very supportive of the island teams,” he says. “He is one of the coaches for Rugby Rhino Academy in San Clemente, California and because we had sent a few high-performance players to him before to prep, this year we decided to send 12 players to prepare for the Challenger Series. We have also been hosting training camps all over to improve our game for this Series.”
Not only that, Martin says South African legend Frank Horne will be Jamaica’s Head Coach with Bruce assisting as Technical Director.
“We have a solid team,” he says. “It’s the best team we have ever put together going into the Challenger Series and we are confident in this team. Each Challenger Series, we have upset a top team that ranks over us, and going into this Series our expectation is to finish in the top four at least.”
Bruce says with Jamaica in Pool C against Uganda, Brazil, and Korea, it will be tough competition given Uganda is the favorite in that Pool and that Korea beat Jamaica last year in the same Challenger Series.
“Our main rival is Uganda who have beaten us already, however we have also beaten them before,” he says. “I think we have the advantage this time as we have a faster team, and our mission is to really try and knock them off this year. Brazil’s female team have also been developing really fast and are in the World Series as well as hosting the Rio 2026 Olympics so they will be fierce too.”
Martin says overall the top teams to watch will be Germany and Hong Kong
“Obviously, I think the main team to watch is Jamaica Rugby, and we will put all our energy into doing as well as possible to make both Jamaica and the region proud.”
Tune into the first leg of the Challenger Series, kicking off April 20, live on YouTube here.