Goal 2023 for the Black Devils: Belgian rugby is watching the Japan World Cup by far, but intends to give itself the means to participate for the first time in the World Cup, in four years, in France.
"It's really achievable and realistic," says Federation President Salvatore Zandona. "But there are many things to put in place to get there," said the French coach of the Black Devils, Guillaume Ajac.
First on the sporting level. With 12,800 club licensees identified by the Federation at the end of the 2018-2019 season, rugby is far behind other collective disciplines such as football or field hockey, which crossed the 50,000 mark in September .
Added difficulty, the territorial anchoring of rugby is very unequal. With about 2/3 of Walloon graduates for 1/3 of Flemish, it is one of the few sports more practiced in the south than in the north of the kingdom.
"French-speaking Belgians watch French television, where rugby is more popular", hence its better presence in the latter, explains Mathias Rondou, director of Rugby Vlaanderen.
The Flemish regional league also took advantage of the World Cup in Japan to launch an awareness and recruitment campaign for Dutch-speakers in Belgium.
Some 3,000 to 4,500 supporters are already supporting the Black Devils during their matches in Rugby Europe Championship (REC).
Present since 2017 in this "Six Nations B Tournament", the Belgian XV has systematically ensured its maintenance in the antechamber of the elite, failing to play the victory. And behind Georgia, the ultra-dominant team of REC, the competition seems open in the optics of 2023.
"We are able to hook nations in this division, since we beat Spain, Germany, Portugal", confirms Guillaume Ajac. "But it's just one-offs, we need to gain continuity".
- Professionalize and finance -
A regularity that will inevitably go through professionalisation, in this XV which includes both professional players and semi-professionals and amateurs.
For the moment, Guillaume Ajac estimates that 30 to 40% of the national squad earns his life thanks to rugby. It remains to convince the clubs that employ these professional players to release them for international matches.
"The club will tell the player that he can go, but when he comes back," his place on the team is not guaranteed, says Zandona. "We must avoid this kind of blackmail and play."
To achieve this, the challenge is also financial. With an annual budget of around 850,000 euros, the Federation struggles to compete with Georgia, which devotes 7 million euros to its only national team, the Lelos, according to the president of the Federation.
"World Rugby (the international federation, ed) gives us money, but not much". As for sponsoring, it remains "random and to build".
And public subsidies? Belgian federalism requires, institutional funding is allocated to the regional leagues which donate a portion to the Federation.
At present, a significant part of the federal budget comes from "championship registrations and licensees". However, the country's infrastructure has progressed a lot and the federation is negotiating with World Rugby for "high performance" subsidies.
A significant boost in view of 2023, an additional sesame is awarded to the continent hosting the World Cup.
The holding of the event in France is therefore good news for the Belgians, even if Georgia and Russia should not finish third in their respective pool in Japan, ranking that would have offered them a direct qualification for France-2023.
To join the Hexagon in four years, the Belgians can in any case count on their French coach. "The goal would be to take the national team to the World Cup in France I would like to register until the end of this project," says Guillaume Ajac.
© 2019 AFP