Diving into tackles on the lush green grass at the Southeast Asian Games is a rare treat for the Laos rugby sevens teams who are more used to sidestepping motorbikes during training on a gravelly car park in Vientiane.
In the country, where many live without electricity and unexploded ordnance litters rural areas, rugby is a sport that is only just starting to take root.
So if the small grass area next door to the United States ambassador’s residence in the Lao capital is unavailable, the switch moves and passing drills take place in a nearby car park with plastic cones to try and deter the motorbikes.
Understandably, finding a field of their own is the priority for Lao Rugby Federation partnerships and development advisor Megan Knight, who previously worked with USA Rugby.
“Pitches are the most important thing as the kids in most of the places where we are playing, play on dirt school grounds, they can’t tackle, that’s the thing that prevents them from improving,” Knight said.
“Because of the bombs, the mountains, the gravel, there are just a lot of reasons why it is tough to find a space to play.”
The Colorado native, who speaks fluent Lao and regularly plays for the women’s international team, moved to Laos after looking for rugby development opportunities in Asia.
During her time, Laos has seen a growing female interest in the game after the federation partnered with two nongovernment organizations, ChildFund and Women Win, on a Sport for Development project.
In a country where many women marry in their mid-teens and often leave school early to help with family farms, Knight said the rugby project helped develop life skills, improved confidence and fostered role models.
One of those is 23-year-old Lao Khang, who had never heard of rugby three years ago before the federation came to her small village in Nonghet district. She is now one of 2,000 that play the sport. She also coaches.
“She is such a celebrity when she goes back, everyone knows who she is, they see her on TV,” Knight said.
“Most people in Nonghet don’t get a chance to leave the country, let alone the district, so to see someone who hasn’t even finished school go on and do all this stuff it really inspires kids to be involved … There is huge benefit.”
By offering paid work, skeptical families were more willing to allow daughters to pursue the strange sport.
“Their parents won’t let them just join rugby clubs as they have all this other work to do,” she said.
Knight said poor Internet and limited access to international rugby meant none of the Laos women’s team would recognize All Blacks center Sonny Bill Williams.
But while the numbers of women playing rugby are growing, standards remain low. The women were beaten 17-0 by Malaysia and Philippines on Saturday before host Singapore walloped them 54-0.
Physicality is an obvious issue. Khang is one of the taller players in the squad at 1.60 meters, with three of the 12 below 1.5 meters.
“They like to always say they are small people with big hearts,” Knight said.
While playing at the Olympics “would be great”, social development goals are the priority. The sport’s global governing body, World Rugby, has taken note.
“They are saying if a small country like Laos can get so many girls participating we need to learn from the model,” Knight said.
(China Daily 06/08/2015 page10)