Thu, Dec 13, 2007 - Page 19 News List

FEATURE: The Southeast Asian women who have `rugby spirit'

AP , NAKHON RATCHASIMA, THAILAND

Cambodia's Chan Sokunthea, left, powers through tackles by the Thailand defense during their women's rugby semi-final at the 24th Southeast Asian Games in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AP

Pony tails bob as a player stiff arms an opponent to ward off a tackle. Another dives headlong into a forming scrum. A third shouts unprintable words at the referee.

Meet the latest entrants in the world of international rugby -- the women's national teams of Laos and Cambodia.

It may not be World Cup action and the players average 1.5m, 40kg. But the fledgling athletes play their hearts out as they battle for the bottom rungs at the Southeast Asian Games, where the sport is being staged for the first time.

The Cambodian team -- all orphans or daughters from poor families -- come off the field in tears as they go down 15-0 to Laos. One player is carried in pain and another limps into the locker room.

"I'm proud to be part of something that Cambodia has never had before -- rugby and we women playing it," says 20-year-old Tha Nita.

Women's rugby in Asia is not more than a decade old, but started in Cambodia only a year ago and in Laos a shade later, following on men's rugby which took root a few years earlier.

"A lot of the girls saw the guys playing rugby and said, `We'd like to try that,'" said Chris Mastaglio, a Briton who works for a non-governmental organization in Laos and who "moonlights" to assist the Laos Rugby Federation.

In both countries, foreign coaches started with the touch version of the game until the women asked for real, full contact rugby.

So far only the shortened seven-a-side rugby -- played at the Southeast Asian Games rather than 15-a-side -- has been introduced for women in both Laos and Cambodia.

"They're like the boys. They have the rugby spirit. And they're better students than the men," said Philippe Monnin, a French rubber planter and amateur rugby player who was key in establishing the sport in one of the world's most impoverished nations.

His Cambodian women's team, aged 15 to 22, are all supported by a private French group, Pour un Sourire d'Enfant (For the Smile of a Child), which provides deprived children with food and education.

Initially, he said, the new recruits were a tough, wary, "difficult" group. But that changed as the young women gained a sense of self-worth and also found a sense of trust in their coaches.

"They have the motivation. Being so poor, for them it's a great opportunity. Maybe it's not the best sport for women, but at least they become more confident, strong, less afraid," he said.

Both the women from Cambodia -- who had never been abroad -- and the Laos players were eager to hone their skills against more experienced foreign teams, even if it meant suffering some dire defeats.

At these games, with only four teams taking part, gold medalists Thailand and silver medalists Singapore were head and shoulders above Cambodia and Laos, who took the bronze.

The squad from Laos trained three times a week for nine months prior to the games.

Mastaglio says his relatively diminutive players were not daunted by their opponents.

"The law of physics does dictate a few things, but they are not bothered about their size. They really get stuck in," Mastaglio said.

The smaller build is a problem for all Asian teams when faced with the powerhouses of international women's rugby -- New Zealand, England, France, Canada, the US and others.

No Asian teams participated in the third women's World Cup in Edmonton, Canada, last year when New Zealand took the trophy for the third time.

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