A fishy tale from Samsun

‘Watch out for the Black Sea people’ they told us in Çankırı, ‘they move like fish’ they said. The girl students that warned us were in fact referring to the regional dances performed by the local people. ‘It’s all in the hips’ has taken a whole new meaning after witnessing these escapology mime artists in action. Their movements combined a blend of Irish jigs, tap dance and the sort of wiggling one witnesses in touch rugby games when trying to evade that outstretched arm.

When arriving on the Black Sea at Samsun we were confronted with a much bigger species of fish, the shark. The Samsun Sharks no less: wild unpredictable creatures, ferocious and growing in numbers. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water……

I am of course referring to the newly established rugby club on the Black Sea, Samsun Rugby Club aka Samsun Sharks.

Our host, Mustafa Sagir met with us shortly before a Wednesday evening training session and walked us to the ground. Mustafa, as common in small amateur rugby clubs performs multiple functions. He is the founder, trainer, fixture secretary, captain, treasurer, manager, kit designer and media spokesman. Media spokesman in Turkey usually carries two core responsibilities. Firstly, explaining to the media that they play rugby and not American Football, and then secondly, after the articles had been printed incorrectly, explaining again that they played rugby and not American Football. I have witnessed this first hand across Turkey. In one village I explained to a young lad infinite times that the ball was ‘Rugby ball…… No American Football’. After 10 minutes he could even say ‘Rugby’ so when his friend approached to join in I was disappointed that my pad wan used the word American Football in his greeting. None were more surprising to me than the newspaper interview in Samsun. We sat at an office desk holding a rugby ball and through Mustafa we answered questions on rugby and our trip from our Turkish journalist. I explained that we were here in Samsun to visit Samsun Rugby Club, why I felt Turkey could be successful at Rugby and how the culture here complemented the spirit of the sport. After a fairly successful and thought provoking 20 minutes on camera, he tried to wind up the session by asking why we had brought a ball into the office. At this point Mustafa turned to me and I could see the 4 years of frustration in his eyes. ‘this guy still doesn’t realise that this is a sport’ he said. ‘really?’ I offered, albeit unhelpfully. The next 5 minutes were spent with Mustafa waving a ball in front of this man and explaining step by step what the game was about. Oddly the journalist spent the next 5 minutes trying to talk over him and in his silent moments staring with a glazed expression. To me, this was comedy, and I wish it was I who had the camera, but worryingly for rugby in Turkey, this is the voice of media, and if after a 20 minute interview about rugby, they don’t understand that it is a sport, how is the article going to reach out to the next generation of potential players?

So back to Samsun Rugby Club, and our first training session. Even after a hot 115km cycle I couldn’t resist the opportunity to join in with the touch rugby at the start. There were at least 14 other players down at this summer training session, a turnout that most coaches would snatch out of your hand. it was great fun, mainly due to the quality of the guys there. This wasn’t just a group of randoms pulling together to form a team. This was a blend of pace, power and skill. The pack was compiled from wrestlers, basketball giants and an English teacher from Rugby in England. The backs, from professional athletes, footballers and doctors. There was a very old fashioned, traditional feel to the teamsheet.

One player of particular mention was Sarjan ‘the rabbit’. At 21 years old he is the fastest man in Turkey running the 100m in 10.7 seconds. Once the ball is safely in his hands people can only watch and laugh as he dances round opposition scoring with practically every touch. He’s pure pace and balance. With some proper coaching and professional work he would make an exceptional find for any club in England. it’s a big call but I say that the Samsun ‘rabbit’ would run whisker to whisker with Bryan Habana and his cheetah.

Another notable mention was a new contender to biggest amateur player on the planet. At 2.06m tall and weighing 120kg is ‘little’ Mehmet. Comically ‘big’ Mehmet was already at the club playing number 9 (at 1.65m and 60 kg!)

Now, let’s talk briefly about the history of rugby in Samsun. Mustafa was a professional volleyball player for 9 years but grew gradually tired of the sport as the camaraderie between players disintegrated at the highest level. He longed for a more honest game, one where politics were thrown from the arena and differences could be settled on the pitch and left there. As a boy, he had sat with his cousin Engin ‘The Sailor’ (for reasons that will be explained in the book) and had watched Pacific island clashes on Eurosport. This was a sport for Mustafa. He wanted to grow scruffy dreadlocks and go crashing through tackles sending bodies in all directions, he loved the intensity of the match, the pace and ambition. So congratulations go to Fiji for inspiring Black Sea rugby, and to Eurosport for not broadcasting scrappy turgid affairs from Murrayfield in the 90s instead.

in 2006 he finally threw in the towel on Volleyball and sat restlessly watching reruns of Jerry Springer, or more probably a Turkish equivalent. it was then that he recalled those early years watching this strange foreign sport and wondered if it existed in Turkey. From the internet he discovered the Ottomons (as I had done too) but little else outside of Istanbul. This meant starting from scratch. He e-mailed the 2 established Istanbul clubs and asked for advice on setting up a team. As a trained sports lawyer he knew about the legalities, but what he wanted was the rugby laws themselves. He had no idea of the specifics but wanted to learn them and teach the people of Samsun. Once these were in place he was ready. With no rugby balls East of Istanbul he placed his hands on an American Football, then proceeded to knock on every door in the university campus trying to organise a practice. When asked why he didn’t have any pads or protective gear, he said they didn’t have the Money to buy these at present. it was easier than the truth. 50 players turned out for the first practice! A few ‘wide receiver’ passes were made during warm-up, but then Mustafa explained that due to the lack of funds and protective gear all passes must be backwards. These were small deviations on the rules and fairly standard in the circumstances.

Mustafa’s account of the first training indicate that this was a bone crushing affair. The guys piled into each other in American Football style for 2 hours. He admitted having serious concerns about what he had done. This wasn’t anything like Eurosport. With no idea of the rules and with little interest in the ball, he could only work on the principal of ‘last man standing’ when choosing his squad to progress. in this way the 50 players became 20 after the first Samsun ‘Royal Rumble’ with losers being literally thrown into the stands. if nothing else, you’d imagine that the remaining 20 wrestlers, kickboxers and martial artists be fairly tasty at the breakdown.

Under the guidance of Mustafa, and with regular training 3 or 4 times a week, the squad developed from a group of cannonballs, into a refined unit with each player selected and crafted into a position. He sourced some basic equipment and ordered some balls from Georgia. When left with a kit issue, he even drafted up designs for some tightfit rugby shirts, created a team badge and ordered a tailor to stitch these out of local fabric. The results were impressive. He has gifted me one of the last batch and I would gladly wear it over the parachutes that most clubs dish out on a Saturday morning. ‘Here you are backs – 7 props shirts for you’…… why do we do this?

Next, with the help of a local blacksmith, they handcrafted a scrum machine from spare parts and DiY materials. The club was now in place but more importantly the squad had become firm friends. They had developed a team spirit and a sense of fun. Everyone has found themselves a nickname and the changing room now sees the same pranks and jokes that you’d have found back home. You don’t find this in the iRB rule book, so it seems that the culture of rugby is silently embedded into the laws of the game.

In 4 years from nowhere, Mustafa has created a rugby club with all the same characteristics that make the sport a favourite with millions. The Sharks are off to the Istanbul 7s in August to do battle with national teams from Germany, Libya and India, I wish I could be there with them.


4 Responses

  1. Great write up. 🙂 nice to see that you enjoyed samsun.

    Rug On


  2. Loving the Photos & the blogs guys keep em coming.

  3. Hi Jodie and Tom!
    Hope everything is going well! How is the journey going? You’ve ridden so many miles already! I can’t believe you’ve cycled to Turkey! How are the legs holding up? I bet it’s exhausting but amazing in equal measure. I really want to hear all about your travels – what is eastern Turkey like? Where are you headed next? Your pictures on flickr make it look very beautiful!
    We’re all fine here – my belly’s getting bigger by the day. Ross says it’s finally overtaken his!! 🙂 Alex will be 2 in less than 2 months – can you believe it!??
    Anyway, take lots of care. Miss you!

  4. Thanks for the postcard!! Got it the day before yesterday! xx

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