Jean-Luc Barthes Credit: World Rugby (Arigi Obiero/KRU Media & Communications)

Eight of the best rugby-playing nations in Africa have converged in Nairobi, Kenya for the 2022 Rugby Africa U20 Barthes Trophy that will be played from April 9-17 at the Nyayo National Stadium.

Named in honour of Jean-Luc Barthes in 2016, this is the African continent’s top division for boys under the age of 20 years. Aged 56 at the time of his passing on February 10, 2016, Jean-Luc Barthes was International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) Rugby Services Manager for Africa.

He was a much-loved and highly-valued member of the World Rugby team, read a World Rugby statement, and Abdelaziz Bougja, then-president of Rugby Africa said that his Rugby Africa legacy was huge and we owed him a lot.

True to this word, Rugby Africa has honoured and kept this legacy alive with the U20 championship.

I got the opportunity to speak to Lola Barthes, daughter of Jean-Luc Barthes on Thursday morning in a Zoom meeting while sitting at the reception of the Mövenpick Hotel in Westlands, Nairobi where the Ugandan contingent had just checked in after a 15-hour overnight bus drive from Kampala.

Lola currently works with the European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) as a Media & PR officer but her career started with Rugby Africa as a communications manager a few years ago. It is evident to see that the passion Jean-Luc had for the sport was passed onto his daughter who says rugby is a big part of her life.

“I started my very good relationship with rugby when I was a child because of my father. He was always involved with rugby as a player, coach and then working with World Rugby. I think it was very good for me to spend these years in Africa because I learnt a lot. I am passionate about what I’m doing and it is so interesting but Africa had something more, so it is very special,” she says as we begin our conversation.

In this piece, Lola tells stories of her father and his work in African rugby, her best memories, what the Barthes Trophy means to her family, and her thoughts on the upcoming tournament this year.

Jean-Luc was a swimmer in his early days before he embarked on what would become an impactful rugby career.

“He started rugby because he was just a very competitive person. He used to do a lot of different sports, let’s say. He started rugby because we are from a city called Castres in the South West of France where rugby is really really popular,” Lola recalls.

She adds that from stories of those that knew him back then, he was not very technical a rugby player but he could run very fast.

From Castres Olympiques at the end of the 1970s, Jean-Luc played with Toulouse in the same region before moving to the North of France where he played rugby as well.

“He didn’t have a brilliant rugby career but he just enjoyed it a lot. I think that his years in the North of France with this rugby team were the best years of his life. The rugby atmosphere was really really nice. So he just wanted to continue with this very special sport,” she says.

Thereafter, he started to do some missions for the league and the French Rugby Federation for nearly a decade until 2002 when he got the job with IRB to work for the development of rugby in Africa.

“He always had something for Africa. It is a continent that is very special for both my parents. We grew up and travelled a lot in Africa so this continent was really special for him. He was really proud to work with different countries in Africa,” Lola recalls.

“We had that game with my father where we had to name how many countries we went to in Africa. I was really bad and he was really good because he actually I think visited almost all the countries in Africa, which was really impressive and all just for rugby and I was really impressed,” she says.

The family of five, Jean-Luc, his partner Janick, and daughters Delphine, Lola and Lou, visited multiple African countries like Senegal, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Madagascar, Tunisia but settled mainly in Morocco for nearly 5 years.

“When we were in Morocco, we had very special times with rugby games and after we were all together eating couscous. It was really this rugby atmosphere that we loved so much,” she says.

Lola says she has so many different stories of their time in different African countries that she could write a book,

“I have so many different stories that I could actually write a book because everything is so special in Africa with rugby,” she says.

L-R: Jean-Luc Barthes, Mamad (from Madagascar) and Guedel Ndiaye (President of Senegalese Rugby Federation) Credit: Lola Barthes, daughter to Jean-Luc Barthes

The best memory she has with her father however was in Madagascar where they went for the Rugby Africa Cup in 2014. Matter of fact, it is her best rugby memory of all even with her experiences in professional rugby in Europe.

“This rugby in Madagascar was pretty special, pretty intense. There were about forty thousand people in the public, I think, so the stadium was full. There were so many colours, so many flags and they were all cheering their team and I was impressed because, in this country, rugby is everything. (And) they work so much to give these values to children to do something with the sport and it worked, and it still works, because the Africa Cup was full of people and it will always be my best memory,” Lola narrates.

For the fourteen years Jean-Luc worked with, for and in African rugby, he gave it his utmost best. When he joined at the turn of the millennium, only eight nations were members of Rugby Africa and by 2016, the number had risen to 39 nations.

To name the Rugby Africa U20 Div 1A in his honour, Lola says they (her family) didn’t expect that since he was a man that did not enjoy being in the spotlight.

“It was really an honour. We didn’t expect that. But it makes so much sense that it is this tournament because my father was not really someone who liked to be in the spotlight. He just wanted to work for rugby, to develop rugby, to help people that had great ideas, great associations, to work with children… that’s what he wanted to do to make rugby known in the continent,” Lola says.

With her two sisters and mother, there is immense pride and they truly believe that Jean-Luc would have been proud too.

“It was very special for us to hear that this specific tournament was named after him because he would have been so proud because of this legacy so it’s all about the players we will have tomorrow they are the future of rugby in Africa.

Unfortunately, Lola has not yet attended the Barthes Trophy since it was named after her father although she looks forward to being there in person in the future one day.

“I was there before it was named after my father but I really hope that I will have the time one day to go to one of these tournaments. I’m pretty sure that the rugby there is exceptional and I will be so happy to meet these wonderful players because they are the future of rugby in Africa. This is on my wishlist definitely,” she reveals.

From the peripheral, Lola thinks the Barthes Trophy has improved each passing year. In 2022’s edition this year, there will be eight competing nations which is the highest the event has registered in its history since 2007 when it was launched.

“I think it looks better and better. The work that has been done by Rugby Africa and the different unions is incredible. I’m happy on a personal level because that’s legacy and I know that what my father did was not for nothing, and there’s a lot of people that still want to do great things for rugby in Africa and it works. And I’m really happy about it,” Lola says.

As we conclude our conversation, I ask Lola for her thoughts and which teams she looks forward to.

“I can’t wait to see what Uganda, Madagascar and Cote d’Ivoire will do because I know how much these tournaments are important for them, and for the other teams as well of course,” Lola reveals.

The action gets underway this Saturday at the Nyayo National Stadium with the knockout quarterfinal stage.

Ernest Akorebirungi is an amateur rugby player and a keen follower of local Ugandan rugby.

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