Josh Reeves playing for Brazil in 2017. Alamy Stock Photo
grow the game

'In Brazil, it’s different. Some of our squad have come from incredibly tough backgrounds'

Ex-Wanderers player and Sligo director of rugby Josh Reeves is now driving Brazilian rugby.

THE WORLD CUP finished three weeks ago, but it wasn’t the end of Test rugby for 2023.

Today sees the second and final weekend of La Vila International Rugby Cup taking place in Villajoyosa on the southeast coast of Spain.

Funded by World Rugby, the competition involves the hosts, USA, Canada, and Brazil – four of the best teams who didn’t qualify for the World Cup. Two Test matches to end the year have been welcome for these nations, who have recently been given renewed encouragement.

Next time around, the World Cup will involve 24 teams rather than 20, so they will have big ambitions of featuring in Australia in 2027. The fact that the new Nations Championship will kick off in 2026 is further motivation for nations such as Brazil, who will be doing everything in their power to earn a spot in the 12-team second division.

So while some countries outside the traditional elite have big concerns about the advent of the Nations Championship, the Brazilians see it as a huge opportunity. 

“For a Uruguay or a Georgia who are more at the top end of that second tier, it might be a bit more frustrating for them because I know they want to play more Tier 1 nations regularly, but for us it’s a possibility to have a regular schedule every July, every November, having three massive matches to build towards in each window,” says Josh Reeves, Brasil Rugby’s technical director.

“At the moment, we sort of build our international calendar on a yearly basis. That’s OK but it doesn’t give you the same ability to prepare, develop, and look forward.”

The overriding goal is qualification for the 2027 World Cup. The Brazilians know that if they’re firmly in the mix for that, then inclusion in the Nations Championship based on their world ranking should be achieved too.

Reeves is the man driving the project. He’s a New Zealander who spent the 2011/12 season with Wanderers FC in Dublin, also coaching in St Andrew’s College and playing cricket for the North County club in Balbriggan. While he was in Ireland, he met the Brazilian woman, Ana, who later became his wife.

They moved to New Zealand for a few years before shifting to Ana’s homeland in 2014. Three years later, Reeves was Brazil’s out-half after qualifying under the residency rule and he went on to win 30 caps, featuring in what was a strong period for Os Tupis.

He has been coaching throughout his time in Brazil too and after spending the 2021/22 season back in Ireland as Sligo RFC’s director of rugby, he was appointed to his current role in June 2022.

Now, his mission is to help Brazil to qualify for the World Cup. Reeves played for Os Tupis up until the end of 2020 so he knows the landscape intimately. He explains how the pandemic was crippling for the country as a whole and for rugby.

WhatsApp Image 2023-11-09 at 20.31.02 Reeves coaching in Brazil.

“Life in Brazil was obviously very tragic in terms of the pandemic,” says Reeves. “As a result, club rugby in Brazil stopped completely for two years.”

Playing numbers dropped off massively, funding was reduced, and the Brazilians – like many others – have had to rebuild from that low point. They’re currently ranked 26th in the world but the project to rise again is underway.

Having come close to luring St Michael’s director of rugby Andy Skehan to Brazil as the national team head coach – he consulted with them in 2022 – the Brazilian union has now hired ex-Uruguay international Emiliano Caffera as the boss of both their men’s and women’s 15s teams.

The women’s side are ranked 49th behind the likes of Thailand and Bosnia & Herzegovina, so there’s a big job on there. However, Brazil’s women’s 7s team are a full-time set-up who are part of the World SVNS Series alongside the likes of Ireland.

Caffera joins from the Chile coaching staff, having been part of their qualification for the 2023 World Cup. Reeves believes that experience could be pivotal for Brazil.

Os Tupis have a squad of around 35 full-time professional players pased in São Paulo to draw on, with that group playing for the Cobras club side in Super Rugby Americas as well as featuring for the national team.

Reeves is the Cobras’ head coach and says Super Rugby Americas, which developed from Súper Liga Americana de Rugby, is crucial. It allows the Brazilians to develop players, build cohesion, and nail down a style of play. The competition runs from February until June and also includes two Argentinian teams, as well as one each from Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and the US. The Black Lions from Georgia could also join next year.

Brazil have eight players based abroad, with prop Wilton Rebolo becoming the first Brazilian to play Super Rugby with the Western Force in Australia earlier this year. There are others in French, Italian, and Portuguese club rugby, while Reeves is keen to get a few into Major League Rugby in North America.

He’s certain there is lots of untapped potential within Brazil, particularly given how athletic the people are.

“The pure genetics, Brazil as a country has got 220 million people and lots of large communities from all different places around the world,” says Reeves, who has Irishman Simon Coulter working alongside him in the Brazilian union as head of performance.

“There’s an African influence, German influence, influence from all across Europe. In the south of Brazil, there are massive people. So you can really develop all of the body types you need in a rugby squad.

“We’ve got a massive forward pack. I was doing some calculations and the pack we can play over here in Spain is around 950kg. Big props, big back row, big centres over 100kg. So from a genetic standpoint, we’ve certainly got the size to play at Test level.”

But while Brazilian football is renowned for its flair, creativity, and daring, the Brazilian rugby culture isn’t quite the same. Indeed, Reeves and co. are working hard to create a true identity for Brazilian rugby.

rio-de-janeiro-brazil-january-11-2023-view-of-rocinha-the-largest-favela-in-rio-de-janeiro-brazil Many of the Brazilian players come from the favelas. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The club game isn’t very well developed and as Reeves outlines, a nation’s rugby identity usually stems from the grassroots. So the high-performance department in Brasil Rugby are pushing their players to embrace an ambitious style featuring offloading and attacking kicking.

Rugby is far from mainstream in Brazil. It’s not on the PE curriculum in schools and popular only in small pockets around the country. However, Reeves is excited about rugby getting introduced into ‘SESI’ schools in Brazil, which are essentially schools for the kids of people working in specific industries. Their sporting facilities are top-class, they have full-time coaches, and many of them currently feed into professional sports clubs in volleyball, basketball, and water polo.

Reeves hopes these SESI schools will become a rugby production line in the next 10 years.

“For me, that could become our version of the Irish schools system.

“There will be five or six units with fantastic sporting infrastructure and paid professionals. In two or three of those units already, we have 15-year-olds training five times a week. That’s the level of intensity.”

For now, poor infrastructure at the clubs can make it hard to attract young players.

There was a successful programme run in 2015 that saw rugby introduced into some of the favela slums on the outskirts of the big Brazilian cities.

“That produced a lot of players for the Tupis,” says Reeves. “A lot of the players have come from those favela backgrounds.”

He sees this as a unique element of the Brazilian rugby story and flags it as one of the reasons sponsors should get involved. Chasing World Cup qualification is expensive and the Brazilians are currently looking for a main sponsor to go along with the funding they receive from World Rugby, the Brazilian Olympic committee, and Sudamérica Rugby.

“Whoever gets on board now with Brazilian rugby could be part of an incredible story,” says Reeves.

“With some of the other Tier 2 nations qualifying for World Cups, rugby in those countries tends to involve private schools and be a bit more upper class.

“In Brazil, it’s different. Probably 80% of our national team squad comes from much more challenging backgrounds. We drive our players to study, learn English, try to get degrees.

“I think there are a lot of similarities between South Africa and Brazil from a socio-economic standpoint. Townships are quite similar to favelas in a lot of ways, so there are similar stories to what we hear from some of the South African players.

megan-burns-with-bianca-silva Brazil women's 7s are part of the World SVNS series. Travis Prior / INPHO Travis Prior / INPHO / INPHO

“Some guys in our squad have come from incredibly tough upbringings. Rugby for them has been a fantastic opportunity to develop themselves and their lives. We’re constantly putting a focus on it not just being about rugby but life outside rugby.”

It’s a world away from Shirley, his local rugby club in Christchurch, but Reeves wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. The sprawling São Paulo is home now and his work is all about helping the Brazilian men’s and women’s teams towards World Cup qualification.

Expansion for both of those competitions and the new Nations Championship has given the project fresh impetus.

“It opens that pathway a little bit more for us to really have a go,” says Reeves.

“We saw what Chile were able to do in the World Cup. We play against them on an annual basis. We feel we’re not far off them and that if we work hard, we can get to where they are.

“I feel like we have the talent to qualify for a World Cup, it’s just about being able to work consistently over the next 18 to 24 months to be able to do it.”

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