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Laos Rugby Federation (LRF) - http://www.laorugby.com/
Laos Rugby facebook - CLICK HERE
Wild Hogs Rugby Club - http://www.wildhogsrugby.com/Wild_Hogs/Home.html
Buffalos Rugby Club - http://www.buffalos-rufc.com/
Lions Rugby Club - http://www.rugbyinasia.com/laos/145-13/vientiane-lions-rfc
I have to admit to having a soft spot for the Lao PDR. After my visit a few years ago, crossing the border from Vietnam brought back fond memories of mellow days full of sunshine, happy faces and plenty of Beerlao. As our good friend from Hanoi Dragons RFC put it, “they’re a nation of surfers without the coastline!” Couldn’t put it better myself Fergo!
Unfortunately, mellow days full of sunshine wasn’t quite what we had in store! It had been physically challenging slog from Hanoi and we quickly learnt that the hills of Northern Laos demanded every ounce of sweat and energy you had. And given our recent, shall I say, less strenuous schedule in Japan & Hong Kong, the constant 12% inclines/ declines and hairpins had me literally wailing in frustration! Then it started raining. And raining. In fact it rained solidly for 5 days, 24 hours a day. And it was freezing! OK, so this was no China but we had posted all our cold weather gear on in anticipation of a steamy SE Asia. Shouldn’t the rain be warm here?! You see, the problem when it rains that much is that there really is no escaping from it. Everything was soaking and muddy. Our tent, our clothes, our shoes, our panniers. I have never known rain like it. It hung around us in a grey misty cloud, setting off swarms of flying ants and just generally putting a dampener on things. And then Tom’s front wheel rim cracked. Mmm, things were definitely not going to be as mellow and relaxed as I remembered!!! I think we may have laughed if we weren’t being so British and grumbling about the weather!
Don’t get me wrong, I love Lao. It’s like a little magical treat. Masses of green peaks as far as the eye can see, waterfalls, caves, rivers – what is there not to love? It just so happens that pushing a 50kg bike up a hill while your rather new and dashing Royal Blue poncho slaps around your calves and your feet squelch with every dragging step, you can lose sight of what’s around you. I think the local villagers thought we were truly insane, though I especially love the way that two ‘falangs’, a water filter pump and a camping stove can draw a good crowd… priceless.
Ah, and speaking of a good crowd, that is exactly what we have found among our new friends at Lao Rugby in Vientiane. The sun came back out and bang, we were back in business. Some might be surprised to learn of the thriving, passionate and dedicated rugby community here but having been in touch with them from the road for some time, we were full of anticipation at reaching this veritable hub of rugby activity. Full of energy, spirit and a tireless enthusiasm for developing the sport through community and school projects, we certainly haven’t been disappointed and feel honoured to have met so many great people here.
Though Chris Mastaglio, national standoff and all round Lao rugby hero was away for the HK Sevens, it was business as usual back at the Lao Rugby Federation office. I think it would be fair to say that the girls pretty much run the show around here and I couldn’t possibly do everyone justice for the work they do but first there are two young ladies in particular we want to mention.
Firstly let me introduce Megan Knight. Originally from Colorado, she left the States after her studies to work abroad in India then Central Vietnam but frustrated by the lack of rugby there started to look for a new opportunity. With prior work experience at US Rugby, the Lao Rugby Union caught her eye and she hasn’t looked back since. As she had kindly offered to put us up for our stay (thank you so much!!) we were met by Megan on arrival in Vientiane, late one Saturday night. It didn’t take us long to see that this was no ordinary girl. Not only has she has picked up the local language fluently in the one year she has been here, she manages the Men’s National team, seeks sponsorship opportunities for Lao Rugby, organises tournaments, plays, trains, coaches….and this isn’t even her job! Everything she does with Lao Rugby is done voluntarily for the love of the sport, with English Teaching as a full time job on the side to pay the bills. I think most Rugby Federations would kill to have a Megan in their midst! Sorry chaps. She’s taken.
And now let me introduce the wonderful and exceptional asset to the Lao Rugby Federation – Maggie Dillon. A truly inspiring and self deprecating individual, Maggie is one of only two full time employees of Lao Rugby and has proved to be vital to the ongoing development of the sport here. Born in Detroit, Maggie is certainly no stranger to travelling and working abroad, previously working and playing in Europe before applying specifically for the post of Operations Manager at the LRF through a fellowship from Princeton in Asia. Her tireless efforts ensure that rugby continues to grow and develop amongst the community, which is certainly helped by by the fact that she is another fluent Laotian speaker (and reader!) after just 9 months! She is integral to the coordination and success of the numerous schools & community projects undertaken by the federation and that’s as well as the day to day running of a Rugby Federation and all that it entails. Again add on top of that coaching, training and playing and I fear I am surrounded by superwomen…!
Our rugby visit has been crammed full of stories and characters, here are a few of the findings from Vientiane!
The "Buffs" are a side currently under the leadership of John Biddle, an Australian with many years of experience in areas of South East Asia. Their squad is home to most expat rugby players in the capital, but they actively involve local Lao players from schools outside of Vientiane. They facilitate transport for these players which provides much needed relief to the Laos Rugby Union who operate an amazing rugby program on such a small budget. On a good day their squad will exceed 40 players with an almost 50/50 balance between homegrown talent, and some International experience. They are a model expat team, with training sessions including boys and girls of all ages and levels. Many of the Lao born players have gone through the Buffs' training to progress to the Lao National XV, but commonly they then defer to their rivals, the Hogs. The "Buffs" were great fun, and one of the sides to have represented Lao in the Indochina cup we discussed from Vietnam. I hope they continue in their good work, not only for the contributions they make to the Lao players in the side, but to the healthy rivalry they provide to our next team "the Hogs", who have admitted that having a local opposition, gives them added incentive to train hard and to improve.
The "Hogs" are made up entirely of local Lao players and are the primary feeder for players in the Lao National XV. It is also the home to Pisa, one of the Lao born volunteer coaches. The squad size is healthy, with around 30 players attending training, run by Head Coach Garry Wright on the evening we visited. We should add here that not only does Garry coach the Wild Hogs, he plays for the Mens National XV and has been one of the long standing supporters of rugby development in Lao. He certainly managed to keep the boys in check for a couple of hours! The side is youthful and on the whole very athletic, with genuine pace and attacking intent their primary weapons. The heat does little to slow them down and if they could dictate the pace of the game, they would be a real handful on the pitch. The only drawback at present, is that at only 6'2'', I still dwarfed most of the team.
It therefore remains that the pack is a little light to progress nationally. Having said this, under the leadership of Men's National Team Coach Ian Melhuish, the National XV are current back to back champions of the A5N regional divisional so what do I know? The Lao physique appears condusive to aquire muscle, but some amendments to the diet of sticky rice and frogs would be needed along the way. At present they are only a few good meals away from taking Asian rugby by storm. Many of the players are still teenagers, and if they keep the group together over the next 3-4 years they will be a force to content with. Watch this space.
The "Lions" are the female club side in Vientiane that are open to all girls with rugby experience or not. They could now field over 2 sides and provide the club structure for the entire Women's Lao National XV. With no exaggeration I say this: they are awesome. It's notoriously difficult to get rugby clubs started anywhere in the world, whether they are male, mixed, junior or senior. These girls are a solid and enthusiastic group, not to mention brave beyond their size with some skills to match league levels I've watched back in England. Through our 22 countries this far the Lions have stood out heads and shoulders above other female club sides. They are home to every female involved in the union, one of whom is Noui (who we will discuss shortly) and consist of players progressing from many of the school rugby projects. As Maggie introduced the players to us one by one, we quickly realised that this side represents a pool of talent from many regions of Laos, not just the capital. On a national level, they too suffer from the same size problems, although in fairness, on Tuesday night I saw a 5' girl thrown about 15' in the air to claim a lineout drill. For me, they've started with all the right ingredients: enthusiasm, skill and a unique Lao camaraderie. The size will come.
I thought that cycling had given my crutch a battering, but that was before we hitched
moped rides to sessions on the Lao Rugby Union outreach program. So bumpy was the journey that one of the sessions started with a 2 minute stretch, just for the coaching staff's backsides. Nevertheless we got a rewarding view of life through the outer villages and enjoyed seeing the participation of boys and girls in various rugby exercises. Many children would attend the sessions still in school uniform, mostly barefoot, but they still didn't break a sweat in the 35 degree heat. In sympathy, Jodie and I decided to simultaneously sweat for all 30 of them.
Rugby has now begun to infiltrate the schools activity program, but mostly they are approved after-school sessions, starting at 3pm. In Lao, rugby doesn't carry any stigma, and it's not misinterpreted or confused with violence. It's simply a new game in their lives, and as volunteers from the male and female senior teams are prepared to come out to schools and teach it, the kids are equally eager to learn. Most of the boys and girls are tiny, and the size 5 balls look pretty huge in comparison. Children in both schools were absorbed by the sessions and in one session the girls clearly outnumbered the boys. It was great fun for everyone involved, I hope that these schemes continue to flourish out in the villages.
As in many Asian countries, the cheap and obtainable drug known as "meths" brings many social problems. Lao, is no exception, but where there is a government rehabilitation house for young users, the Lao Rugby Union has stepped in to steer children into a better social scene following their exit. We were honoured guests at the first ever rugby match within the facility. The Lao Rugby volunteer coaches have been teaching the sport for many months, and it was at last decided they were ready for a 7s game. Boy were these kids ready!
Using 2 donated team strips from overseas clubs the 2 sides, complete with subs, battled each other for around 40 minutes. It was fantastic to watch, and very evenly balanced for the most part. Many of these boys hae taken to it naturally, and one hopes that when they are discharged that they will embrace the rugby communities waiting for them on the outside. A huge amount of credit must go to Vieng. She has not only coached high levels of skill and positioning, but also mentored a team who displayed both self respect and responsibility, on and off the field. Thank you Vieng, this is why we are cycling 28,000km to the Rugby World Cup and not flying.
Sometimes you miss a little rugby event, like the Hong Kong 7s for example, by just a week or so. It's frustrating, but being on a bicycle means that you have to fit in a few days pedalling to reach your targets. Fate sometimes rewards you for your efforts, and in an attempt to highten our Laos Rugby experience we just so happened to be in town at the same time as ex-Wallaroo player and national 7s coach, Shirley Russell. Shirley is off the back of a year out of the game, and just maybe is looking for another chapter in her magnificent rugby history. Great to meet with you Shirley.
Male and Female Rugby is not developing concurrently, but as one single program in Laos. Participating levels on the schools program are even and all projects are run with both sexes in mind. Many female coaches are in place for male club training and vice versa. There is a single mixed-sex rugby community in place here.
There is a long list of congratulations to go out to Chris, Maggie, Megan, Pisa, and all the coaching staff for the success they are achieving out in Laos. It was therefore a difficult decision to choose who should travel with us on the "World in Union" scroll. Should it be someone who has played in the national team, perhaps someone who has even captained the national team? Or should it be someone who has shown such dedication to coaching the future generations of rugby players? What about someone who handles marketing, press and sponsors as part of their role? In such a productive environment it seemed impossible to choose, that was, until we found someone who covers ALL the above. Someone a little bit special, and for the very first time on our scroll, A GIRL !
Let us introduce you finally to our youngest ever "World in Union" scroll signature, and the first female legend: Noui !
Noui, is now only 24 years old and works full time at the LRU as the Assistant Program Developer. She is a qualified IRB Level 1 coach, the captain of the Ladies Lao National XV and a coach to 100s of children across the various projects. When she is not on the field, she is staffing the office with Maggie, dealing with press, marketing and helping Megan with event organising and sponsorship bids. In an interview with Neui, we learned how rugby entered her life only 5 years ago.
Ms. Valaylack Songkhame (Noui)
International player and captain
Jodie: "Sab-a-dee Noui !! Please tell us, how did you become involved in rugby?"
"My friend played for the National team, she said I should come down to training. So I did, and I didn't like it!"
"But then I came down again, and it was ok. And then on the third time, I loved it !!"
"Rugby has given me an opportunity to help people, and with it to build a large group of friends that has now become a strong community"
Jodie: "and what is your favourite aspect of your rugby work?"
"I love to travel abroad and represent my country, but my favourite thing is to teach rugby to the young children. I always like to help people and now my job is to help people all day long. I am very lucky!"
Jodie: "do you have any dreams of what can be achieved in the future?"
"I have no long term dreams at the moment, but for the next 3 years I want to continue growing the schools outreach programs. Rugby is such a good sport for children. They learn to be strong and to develop responsibility and friendship, this is very healthy for the young generation in Laos"
Jodie: "and just to annoy Tom, do you prefer to work with women players or men?"
"I like to work with everyone in rugby but I am very proud of the male National team, I hope that as girls we can continue to improve and achieve the levels they are setting"
Jodie: "Thanks so much Noui, it's been a pleasure talking with you, Kop-chai !!"
So finally, huge thanks to a very modest Noui, our Lao legend, and a massive thankyou to everyone at the Lao Rugby Union, thanks for your time, for your limitless hospitality and for your outrageous energy. Keep it going everyone !
The Lao Rugby Union are on the most part rugby volunteers. Sadly, for the first real time, we have seen a genuine shortage in equipment in comparison to the scale of the projects. Anything that you or your club can provide out here will be used 7 days a week. That means the old rugby kits sitting in your store room, balls, broken crash pads or any gear sitting collecting cobwebs in your shed. All clubs have items laying about, and with a few minutes searching at your next training session you would be helping to train 100s more in very poor areas.
Please feel free to drop an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with details and we will arrange for collection and delivery to the worthy causes out here.
A full list of the Lao coaching staff can be found below:
National XV coaches: Ian Melhuish (Maloo) - UK, Garry Wright - AUSTRALIA
Rugby program coaches:
Ms. Valaylack Songkhame (Noui)
Ms. Viengsamai Souksavanh (Vieng)
Ms. Pathoumma Insan (Gung)
Ms. Viengphan Thongmala (Tou)
Mr. Pisa Vongdeuanpheng (Pisa)
Mr. Savanhxay Xayyasone (To)
Mr. Damlongsack Chanthasouk (Tom)
Mr. Phetthanouson Chitthaphong (Yok)
Mr. Soukthavi Souliyachack (Serk)
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View our route plan in more detail here