Photo by Ben Stanley

Brazil's Stairway to Olympic Rugby's Sevens Heaven

The Brazilian women's rugby team is an unlikely contender, but thanks to an influx of cash and legit talent, they're staking a claim as Olympic medal contenders.

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Oct 9 2014, 12:05pm

Photo by Ben Stanley

The pass is like a bullet. The ball spins through the air with assertiveness and precision, finding its target perfectly. Another is fired to the next player, and another, ensuring the

back-line move proceeds with fluency. It is early July in Brazil, there is a week left in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and this group of athletes is doing what they do best.

Well, nearly. The next pass is an absolute shocker; a wobbly effort that falls two feet behind its intended target. It's a pass no international player should be producing.

The coach barks his orders in a blunt Kiwi accent: "Move your body, not your hands! Pick it up, and do it again!"

Pick it up? Um, this is Brazil. This is a World Cup year. Why on Earth would you want to pick it up? Carla Neme 'Zaza' Barbosa reaches down and grabs the ball—an oval-shaped Gilbert—and tosses it to Edna Santini to restart the back-line move.

This is the Brazilian women's rugby sevens squad on the final day of a training camp in Sao Jose dos Campos, an industrial city one hour north of Sao Paulo.

Tonight, A Selecao, the national men's soccer team, will play Germany in the World Cup semifinal in Belo Horizonte, 260 miles away. The weight of a football-crazy nation will rest on the shoulders of David Luiz, Hulk, Marcelo, and their teammates. Estádio Mineirão will be a sea of yellow, photographers' lenses will capture every moment, and journalists will write either a call-to-arms or a eulogy.

The world of Brazil's women's rugby sevens team couldn't be further away. Os Yaras—named after a Tupi Indian heroine—train on a rugby field on the grounds of the Ericsson factory in Sao Jose dos Campos, right next to the noisy BR-116 highway. Few in Brazil know these women's names, and most would struggle to even name the sport they play.

Yet somewhere between the odd errant pass, noise from the trucks rattling down the highway, and factory workers heading to work, an Olympic dream is being born.

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Think Brazil, and along with beaches, caipirinhas, and Christ the Redeemer, you think soccer. You think of Pele's perfect touch, Socrates' flowing locks, and Ronaldo's buckteeth.

You think of unpredictable sporting beauty; of people playing a game the way it was surely meant to be played.

You don't think of rugby. No way, meus amigos.

Rugby is that brutal sport played by burly Brits and the colonially conquered; a 30-person melee of sweaty scrums, bone-crunching tackles, and broken limbs.

But rugby actually pre-dates soccer in Brazil. The first recorded game of rugby there took place in Sao Paulo in 1888, six years before Scotsman Charles Miller famously held the first soccer kick-around in Bangu.

The Brazilian women's rugby team during a training session. Photo by Ben Stanley

"They started playing rugby, but they all got injured," Brent Frew, Confederacao Brasilieira de Rugby union's (CBRu) high performance director, says. "They had to take time off work, and they lost pay—so they stopped playing rugby, and started playing soccer. The rest is history—but rugby has always been here."

Frew is a former skills coach with the Canterbury Crusaders, who are giants in Super Rugby. In Canterbury, he worked alongside future All Blacks coaches Robbie Deans and Steve Hansen. He found himself in Brazil after Canterbury rugby and the CBRu signed a five-year coaching and support agreement in 2012.

Brazil's rugby ambitions stepped up in 2009, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to bring rugby sevens into the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games. In 2012, CBRu president Sami Arap told the New York Times that he wanted Brazil to qualify for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. One step toward achieving that goal was the support agreement with Canterbury.

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Sevens, first played in Scotland in the early 1880s, is the most abbreviated version of rugby; a sub-sport that puts a premium on speed and fitness. Played on a full-size field, sevens sees teams shorn to seven players, halves of play from 40 minutes to, yep, seven, and removes full scrums and line-outs from game play.

With the 2016 Olympics being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil will qualify both men's and women's teams for competition by virtue of being hosts.

When the IOC gave sevens the green light five years ago,

the rugby field the women's team trains on now in Sao Jose dos Campos had yet to be cleared out by Ericsson. It was a wild, disorganized tangle of roots and stunted growth; a good metaphor for Brazilian rugby for the majority of its existence.

Back then, playing numbers were poor; funding for grounds, facilities, and administration practically non-existent; and the coaching inept. How things change when you add the word "Olympics" into the equation. Needing the hosts to be competitive in the Olympic shop window, the International Rugby Board (IRB) has poured more than $200,000 into the CBRu annually, including $400,000 in the last year alone.

An English-run $800,000 project to develop rugby in Brazil's schools and favelas started in Sao Paulo in 2012. The CBRu administrative staff has expanded from two to 25 in just five years. There are estimated to be more than 15,000 registered players—mostly men—across all grades in Brazil, with around 300 clubs at different stages of development. One club is even understood to have started after its members became obsessed with playing video game rugby on Xbox. Brazilian rugby clubs allow men the chance to play full length games. For women, sevens is the only option.

However, watch the Brazilian team compete on the yearly Women's Sevens World Series (WSWS) circuit, and you'll see the potential they have to become a phenomenon.

There's outright pace on the flanks from veteran outside back Paula Ishibashi and a tough forwards game spearheaded by workhorse captain Julia Sarda. Halfback Santini is Brazil's biggest star. Described by Coach Chris Neill as "a five-foot-nothing pocket rocket," the 22-year-old, who has a sponsorship deal with rugby equipment giants Gilbert, has a step and eye for the gap that any All Blacks winger would envy.

The view from the goalposts of the Brazilian women's rugby team's training field. Photo by Ben Stanley

Yet for all their ability, mistakes and lapses in concentration can sometimes border on the remedial. Errant passes, a tackling style that needs work, and a near non-existent kicking game all plague the team. There's a reason why Brazil has never finished any higher than ninth in the five-tournament World Series rankings.

Coach Neill, another Kiwi who headed to Brazil thanks to the partnership with Canterbury, says huge improvements have been made since he first joined the program in 2013.

"When I came here, they had one of the best stats on the IRB circuit for holding the ball and passing—but they would do nothing with it," he says. "They would hold the ball for five minutes—a long time in a game of sevens—and would pass 40 or 50 times, and go backwards. They had no width in their positions."

Under Neill, who re-signed to coach with CBRu through the upcoming Olympics, Os Yaras have gone from scoring 17 tries in the 2012-2013 season to 30 last season.

To assist the team's growth, the IRB made Brazil a "core member" of the World Series last season, meaning they would compete in all five tournaments. They made the final eight of the Dubai and Amsterdam legs, recording a 12-12 draw with world number two Canada in Dubai.

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Despite all the new money invested and the progress Neill has made with Os Yaras, the Brazilian women's program still runs on the smell of an oily rag. Elite players receive a tiny stipend of around $800 a month to play for the team, but, with the number of trainings and competitions they must take part in, they are unable to hold down another job. The team has no full-time doctor and 'Zaza' Barbosa fills the role of team translator for Neill.

During the training camp that VICE Sports attended, the men's team stayed in hotels in Sao Jose dos Campos, while the women's team had to sleep in cot beds in the Ericsson factory clubrooms.

You can't imagine the likes of sevens heavyweights—and genuine Rio medal contenders—New Zealand, England, Australia, or Canada roughing it like the Brazilian women do.

"We're at 45 or 55 percent [of what we need] at the moment," he says. "You think of those extra resources, and how much better could we get. The bureaucracy here in Brazil has been a challenge."

What the team lack in resources, they make up for in character. Neill's wider group of around 25, which will be cut down to 12 for Rio, features a cross-section of Brazilian society. There are women from Sao Paulo and Rio favelas, lawyers, and university students—even an actress from Rio, Beatriz 'Baby' Futuro.

Barbosa, a 25-year-old university student and hard-working utility on the rugby paddock, says the team's differences have brought them together.

"The girls from the favelas were afraid to come, at first," Barbosa says."They thought they would be put away from the group, and wouldn't fit in. We've never had much support—we have to stick together to keep on going. We don't earn much money being here. The money I have from rugby isn't much—it's just enough to stay alive. Those girls from the favelas get the same as me—we are all in the same boat. There is no separation between anyone."

Brazil's three sports television channels are, unsurprisingly, dominated by soccer, but during the offseason, one of the channels has shown Brazilian club sevens for the past year. A round of the WSWS will take place in Sao Paulo next February and will be featured on Brazilian TV. That's a big step forward in helping change basic perceptions of the little-known sport, Barbosa says.

"As it is not a common sport, the fathers are kind of worried about their daughters—they are scared of them getting hurt," she says. "It's a lot easier if it's football. People say 'you can go, and earn money.' Rugby they don't know, so they are scared.

I think the vision is a lot better now, because it's growing in the media."

While the CBRu is hopeful of a medal in Rio, Os Yaras probably won't win one. A quarterfinal appearance may be a far more realistic goal, Neill believes. The Olympic rugby sevens competition is scheduled to take place in a temporary 20,000-seat stadium in Deodoro, a middle-class suburb in Rio's Zona Oeste, 19 miles from the middle of the city.

Construction on the stadium has yet to begin. But playing in it would fulfill one dream for Barbosa. The other is to keep the sport alive in her country after the games end.

"I have two dreams," she says. "The Olympic dream is one I had as soon as we found out it would be at the Olympics—I sort of abandoned everything else. The second dream is I wanted rugby to grow—and that is happening. It is growing, and people are starting to accept it."

While it is fundamentally important for the future development of Brazilian rugby that IRB's investments and the English favela project bear fruits, change also needs to happen in the public imagination; it needs its figureheads.

In the likes of the intelligent Barbosa, and skillful Santini, Brazilian sevens may have two, already.

The sport's reception during the Rio games will also have a long-lasting impact. Frew believes it will light a fire in the public.

"You put 12 young men or women in front of 20,000 people in Rio in August 2016, and you watch what happens," he says."A lot of people will know a little, a fair few will go 'Holy shit, what is that violent game?'—but they'll watch it. Then you will get little boys and girls who will think 'I want to play it. That's for me.'

On the field, the women are finishing up their training camp. Boot sprigs start to click across the concrete towards the clubrooms, and players filter off home.

They will watch their country's World Cup dream end as A Selecao get demolished 7-1 by Germany. And like many of their compatriots, they will shed tears.

Over the coming weeks and months, Brazil, and the world, would question the future of the 'beautiful game' in the nation that for so long embodied its best qualities. Meanwhile, the woman of Os Yaras would be preparing to reintroduce Brazil to their own beautiful game.