I started playing rugby in 2003. It was my first year at Princeton University and I missed being a part of a team. I had always been drawn to contact sports and played American football and ice hockey in school. Rugby brought together the elements of those sports I loved: contact, teamwork, communication, intensity and non-stop action.
At Princeton I was a part of a successful squad that made it to the US national collegiate semifinals twice during my run. Though we didn’t take home the title, we won big games along the wa, and used our teamwork, communication and smarts to beat out stronger opponents from universities twice or three times our size. Now my journey with rugby has brought me to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, where I am Operations Manager at the Lao Rugby Federation (LRF), which oversees the sport and provides a valuable community outreach service.
A Short History of Rugby in Laos
The French brought rugby to the region in the 1960s and the sport was quickly taken up in major Lao institutions such as the National University of Laos and the Lao Army, whose squads were able to achieve success on the regional stage, beating the national team of Thailand and touring sides from Hong Kong. While rugby activities then went dormant during periods of domestic unrest in the 1980s and early/mid-1990s, a motivated group of Lao and expat rugby lovers put the sport back on the map in the late 1990s. They started games of touch rugby open to the community. As interest and participation grew, the games eventually turned into contact rugby, which, in order to compete in tournaments throughout the region, eventually led to the formation in 1988 of the Vientiane Buffalos rugby club.
In response to burgeoning interest in the sport, in 2001 the Lao Rugby Federation was founded to provide a formal framework for all rugby union activities taking place in the Lao PDR, whether in the context of school, community or domestic and elite international rugby development. Now in its 10th year, the LRF has seen tremendous growth, not only in programming and capital, but also in the local capacity to administer the sport to a high international level. The LRF is a full member of the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) and an associate member of the International Rugby Board (IRB). Most importantly, the LRF has achieved full recognition from the Government of Laos and the National Sports Committee.
Local Inroads and Enthusiasm
The local response to rugby has been a warm one. Of course, it is challenging to introduce a new sport in an area where football (soccer) is king, but the unique aspects of rugby (scrums and line-outs, rucks and mauls) are interesting to the public, and the social nature of the sport at all levels resonates well with the Lao ethic of community, friendship and fun. As school and community rugby outreach activities have taken place over the course of a decade, and as the LRF hosts more international tournaments and events, the sport has attracted a solid following and now boasts widespread support from individuals, Lao institutions, local businesses and the government.
Of particular value to the LRF is the coaching it has been doing in nine schools in and around the capital city of Vientiane, as well as at the National Drug Rehabilitation Centre. This is an exciting time, as new generations are graduating from school and passing through community rugby projects to make an impact on rugby as players and leaders in local clubs and on national sides. In 2010, 54 percent of the Men’s Senior National Team, 75 percent of the Women’s Senior National Team and 87 percent of the U20s Boys Junior National Team were graduates of the LRF’s school and community rugby development projects.
More energy and resources will continue to be put into outreach initiatives targeted at Lao institutions such as the Institute of Physical Education, Lao Army, Lao Police and the National University, with an aim to develop more domestic clubs, a key criterion for full membership in the International Rugby Board.
Rugby and the Community
The heart of the LRF’s community programming is Champa Ban Rugby, which works to counteract the exclusion of children from recreational sporting activities by providing safe, fun and secure environments for participation in rugby union. Sadly, a significant portion of the Lao PDR’s youth population has no access to learning about the importance of healthy living and fitness, or life lessons such as teamwork, trust, respect, discipline and communication through recreational sporting. The capacity of many teachers to deliver quality physical education is low, especially in rural areas. Only the most athletically gifted are given the opportunity to play organised sports, and the play is highly competitive. Moreover, there are also especially few sporting opportunities available to young women.
In response to this, the LRF provides girls and boys with the chance to play, be healthy and form friendships through sport, whilst realising personal development opportunities to the fullest. This is accomplished through weekly in-house rugby training sessions at nine schools and the National Drug Rehabilitation Centre, bi-monthly community rugby sessions held on weekends at a central location in Vientiane, weekend-long summer residential camps and the Champa Ban Rugby League – all of which are organised, administered and coached by local Lao staff.
Travellers and Volunteers Welcome!
Travellers are warmly invited to get involved in the LRF’s activities. Events are advertised on the LRF Facebook page and the Lao Rugby Federation homepage, as well as in the Vientiane Times, and travellers are always welcome to attend training sessions and competitions. Anyone who would like to have a run with LRF teams should contact the LRF office, which will connect them to the Buffalos, Wild Hogs or Lions club teams.
The LRF even welcomes travellers as short-term volunteers when hosting events such as the Vientiane International 10s, a club rugby tournament that draws men’s and women’s teams from across the region. The LRF is equally keen to partner with travellers who have expertise in specific areas such as graphic design, videography or sports medicine, to name a few.
Finally, I encourage visitors in Vientiane to stop by our office and meet the staff. Donations can be made at the office, where official LRF merchandise can also be purchased. The proceeds of all merchandise sales go directly to grassroots rugby development in Laos.
The Rugby-whl.travel Local Connection
Teamworkz, the whl.travel local connection in Laos, has long been a supporter of rugby development in the Lao PDR, not only as a sponsor but through financial contributions that helped the LRF develop enough administrative capacity to facilitate rugby’s expansion in Laos.
There’s also a strong personal commitment. Lee Sheridan, General Manager at Teamworkz, is a long-time member of the Lao PDR Men’s National Team, while Mouksy Vongsouvath, who works on the booking staff for Teamworkz, is a well-established member of the Lao PDR Women’s National Team and President of the Vientiane Lions Women’s Rugby Football Club.
Both Mr. Sheridan and Ms. Mouksy have made great contributions to the sport in their home country. As a member of the Lao PDR National Team, Sheridan has seen victories in the Mekong Cup Series titles versus Cambodia in 2009 and 2010, and won the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Regional Tournament in 2009 and 2010 with victories over Cambodia and Brunei.
Ms. Mouksy has taken home the bronze medal for Women’s Rugby 7s at the 2007 Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) and is a trailblazer in women’s rugby in the Lao PDR, leading her team, the Vientiane Lions, to success in major competitions in Thailand, Cambodia and in Laos.
I made personal acquaintance with Sheridan through the LRF. He started playing rugby in school, retired due to injury when he was 18 and was one of the people who started the contact rugby games in the early 2000s that led to the establishment of the LRF.
“There are few structured sports opportunities for youth in Laos outside of elite competition,” says Sheridan. “The LRF has been doing a great job through their schools and community outreach programs to engage young Lao people and not only promoting rugby, but also the health, fitness, teamwork, cooperation and respect that is associated with the game.”