Immediately following the Gibraltar 7s in June, TRF CEO Phil Klevorick & EMEA / Event Director Mike Mulroy swapped their referee and management hats and took a tour that would see them travel the length of the Mediterranian and more besides to build new contacts, reach new places and engage more people into rugby.
A swift trip across the Med from Tarifa in Spain to Tangier Port opened up this beautiful and mesmerising Country with the guys taking in a few of the sights around the Kasbah.
Rugby in Morocco certainly retains it's French roots, having arrived in the North African Country in the early twentieth century. Although a founding member of the CAR, there are few teams within Morocco, a feature perhaps of the open landscape with enclaves of population and great distances between them. One of the issues that they have faced is that many of the "stars" head to France for contract rugby and some have even turned down the chance to play for their home nation, favouring the possibility to one day receive a French cap.
That French influence isn't all bad. The "inter-city" rail network (certainly between Tangier and Casablanca) is certainly praise worthy.
Passing through Rabat and seeing the remarkable Mohammed VI Tower being constructed (which will be the tallest tower in Africa once completed) it's easy to see how the fortunes of Morocco have changed in recent years.
Arrival in Casablance wasn't exactly what we expected. This ancient Atlantic port has grown in all directions over the years and to say it's not easy to navigate would be polite. It clearly seemed troublesome even for our taxi driver who "gently" persuaded us to use his vehicle! If you are ever visiting Casablanca, always insist that the driver uses the meter or walk away.
Thankfully we both survived but arriving in such an old town on the eve of Eid we quickly found that there was little to do except do some planning and writing at the hotel - at least the weather and the facilities were on par.
Speaking with some of the players (most of whom are French ex-pats) it's clear that with some additional support and ideas, rugby in Morocco could easily take off. Spme of the school do get involved in TAG rugby but it is largely left to the clubs. Perhaps more Outreach into the schools from an RDO is a possibility but as ever it comes down to money. Leaving some TAG belts and balls behind might be a start but rugby in Morocco needs more to get young people involved.
The vets team in Casablanca likes to play fixtures against visiting teams or those outside of Morocco as they have limited opposition locally. Rather than actually playing in Morocco they and their opponents travel to Cueua, a Spanish autonomous city on the North East coast. Players enjoy the more liberal lifestyle whilst still being in Africa but whilst both sets of players might like the journey I do feel that rugby "tourists" are missing out on a fantastic place to visit. Perhaps holding events in hotels in Tangier for the players, and games in cities like Tangier would be more beneficial to Moroccan Rugby as a whole.
Five hours East from Casablanca, across the length of the Med, past the growing rugby family in Libya lies the coastal city of Tel Aviv. Steeped in history and conflict, it is testiment to the rugby playing community that a few years ago they were able to not play against (although that would have been a first too) but play with the UAE National Team forming "The Brothers of Abriham" named after the peace treaty between the two nations.
There is a diversity in Israel and not the obvious one, that brings rugby together. Brough to the Country by the British in 1975 it has remained popular with ex-pats and those from other rugby playing nations such as South Africa. Alongside the amateur clubs, there is one professional side in Israel, Tel Aviv Heat, headed by CEO Pete Sickle.
Heat has seen it's fair share of struggles lately and not through any fault of their own. After performing in the Rugby Europe Super Cup, they were destined to join the Mzansi Challenge in South Africa but politics put paid to their inclusion back in Febuary. With a key sponsor in Royal Caribbean and a full roster, it's been a challenging few months and although they lost out in securing a place in the EPCR Challenge Cup by a hairbreadth citing an opinion that the didn't have the depth to sustain a full campaign.
The good news is that they are not giving up any time soon - disappointment only seems to strengthen this group even more.
When it comes to delivering rugby, Heat and the amateur clubs have a strong and growing base of players especially at Junior level.
After touring this marvelous land, speaking with players who cross the political and religious divide there's a strong desire to succeed, to prove others wrong and announce Israeli rugby to the world.
If you've not visited Israel, you are truly missing out. The beach front lifestyle of the tourist (and many locals) is idyllic, combine that with thousands of years of history in areas such as Jerusalem and the welcoming nature of the locals and THIS is a place for a rugby tour.