Barefoot and muddied, a group of youngsters sprinted across a makeshift pitch in rural Vietnam, passing the ball in a game of touch rugby in a country where few people have ever heard of the sport.
They belong to Vietnam’s only rugby program for locals, rolled out for kids in a remote commune where some players have to travel by boat to training sessions often held against a backdrop of rice terraces and curious onlookers.
Few knew anything about rugby when they joined the scheme, marveling at the egg-shaped ball, but are now keen fans planning to closely follow the Rugby World Cup in Japan, which starts in September.
“I haven’t watched international rugby ... but if possible I will surely watch the Rugby World Cup,” said 14-year-old Bao Cham, a player on the Silver Fox team in Kim Boi District.
With the first Rugby World Cup held in Asia, organizers are hoping to boost rugby’s popularity in backwaters like Kim Boi, where most kids count Lionel Messi as a hero, but have never heard of New Zealand great Dan Carter.
Vietnam is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia with no rugby federation, and international games are not regularly aired on cable TV.
That means the sport remains on the margins, making the rugby clinic in Kim Boi something of an oddity.
Launched in 2015, the ChildFund Pass It Back program is aimed at teaching youngsters life skills, with lessons on health or planning for the future interspersed with rugby training sessions.
The players, aged 11 to 16, meet regularly on weekends to play touch rugby, which has none of the full-contact version’s heavy tackling.
There are more than 6,100 players and coaches in the program today, more than half of them female, in Vietnam, Laos, East Timor and the Philippines.
Some players will go to Japan with ChildFund — traveling by airplane for the first time — for rugby training and life skills sessions.
Rugby was not the most obvious choice. Soccer, volleyball and sepak takraw (kick volleyball) were also floated as options when the program was piloted in Laos, but rugby was considered the most gender-neutral.
“The young girls in the commune wanted to try this new sport that they had never seen before, it wasn’t considered a boys’ sport,” said John Harris, regional operations officer for the scheme.
Still, some participants in Vietnam had to push back again entrenched sexism.
Coach Bui Thi Lan was told by her in-laws that she should give up rugby after marrying and having a baby — in line with expectations that women should avoid playing rowdy sports.
Lan would have none of it. She returned to coaching four months after giving birth and now teaches 60 kids four times per week.
“Rugby brought me money so that I could take care of myself, working and studying at the same time,” she told reporters at a training session, in which she fed her baby between modules.
Battling inequality was not the only hurdle. There was no vocabulary in Vietnamese for the sport and some terms were coined on the fly.
A scrum is mai rua, which means “turtle shell” in Vietnamese, while the name for rugby is simply bong bau duc, which translates to “oval ball.”
Rugby was not always so foreign to Vietnam, although it has never been widespread among locals. The French are believed to be the first to introduce rugby to the country, and an excerpt from a 1933 telephone book describing the Saigon Sports Stadium notes a rugby pitch with stands for 3,000 spectators.
Today there are no professional Vietnamese-born players abroad — although France flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc is of Vietnamese origin — and just a small group of expatriates playing recreationally in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
However, the game is not totally unfamiliar in Vietnam, as it echoes aspects of the traditional vat cau new year festival that sees shirtless men wrestle for possession of a large wooden ball on a field.
Now Vietnam’s budding young rugby stars hope that the sport will start to gain popularity.
“I really wish that Vietnam would participate in Rugby World Cup one day, and I hope to be a member of that team,” 17-year-old coach Bui Van Nhan told reporters.
News of the MLB’s decision to pull this summer’s All-Star Game from Georgia over its sweeping new voting law reverberated among fans on Saturday, while Georgia Governor Brian Kemp vowed to defend the measure, saying that “free and fair elections” are worth any threats, boycotts or lawsuits. The Republican governor told a news conference that the MLB “caved to fear and lies from liberal activists” when it yanked the July 13 game from Atlanta’s Truist Park. He added that the decision would hurt working people in the state and have long-term consequences on the economy. “I want to be clear: I will not
TAKE TWO: Tainan TSG are the favorites going into this season, which starts on Sunday. They have fearsome forwards and national ’keeper Pan Wen-chieh between the posts Defending champions Tainan TSG (Taiwan Steel Group) face a tough challenge from their southern neighbors Taipower and CPC FC when the Taiwan Football Premier League (TFPL) season starts this weekend with four matches on Sunday. Promoting grassroots soccer, and organizing relegation and promotion between the top and second divisions last year was important for the progression of Taiwanese soccer, CTFA chairman Chiou I-jen told a news conference in Taipei yesterday. “We are going in the right direction ... and becoming more competitive” for international competitions, Chiou said. Still the favorites, Tainan TSG have the league’s most fearsome forwards, with three international star players.
INSULT: Valencia’s Mouctar Diakhaby was involved in a heated exchange with Cadiz’s Juan Cala before indicating to the referee that he was leaving the pitch Valencia’s players on Sunday walked off during their La Liga game with Cadiz in protest against racist abuse, with coach Javi Gracia later claiming they were told they would be punished if they refused to resume the match. The fixture was stopped in the 37th minute after Valencia said their player Mouctar Diakhaby was the victim of a racial insult. Diakhaby had been involved in a heated exchange with Cadiz’s Juan Cala before indicating to the referee David Medie Jimenez that he was leaving the pitch. The Frenchman’s teammates followed him off and Cadiz also went down the tunnel soon after. About 15
Nine-year-old Thai kickboxer Pornpattara “Tata” Peachaurai is eager to get back in the ring after COVID-19 curbs brought his fight season to a halt more than five months ago. The money he earns is vital income for his family. “All the money from boxing, the regular payment and the tips, it all goes to mum,” the lean young fighter said. “I’m proud to be a boxer and to earn money for my mum.” Tata’s last fight was in October last year, before a second COVID-19 outbreak in Thailand shut down sports events as bans on large gatherings were reimposed. “I cannot box. I