2015 was a momentous year for the game played in heaven. The sport’s showpiece tournament the Rugby World Cup, was seen by many as the most successful tournament so far. Anyone who followed the World Cup, whether hardcore followers or neutrals, will never forget the moment when Japan’s Karne Hesketh crossed the try line in the dying minutes of their game against the Springboks to secure a famous hard-fought 34-32 victory. Japan went on to become the first team that failed to qualify for the quarterfinals despite winning 3 games, however such an impressive display is particularly important given it comes at a time as Japan is set to host the World Cup in 2019. This is not only a first for the country but also for Asia as a whole and One of Japan’s main challenges is creating a positive legacy on a continent that covers 60% of the world’s population but hosts less than 10% of the global rugby-playing community. Japan is a sleeping giant and a potential market for the sport and because of this there is a need for initiatives to create a lasting impact.
One is a Sport for Development program designed by the Australian NGO ChildFund called ‘Pass It Back’. This purpose of this project, in the words of Chris Mastaglio, a Country Director for ChildFund, is to use tag rugby as a unique tool to help boys and girls from disadvantaged communities deal with the challenges they face in their own communities and in the fast changing world as a whole.
At the same time, providing training sessions, in co-operation with the Lao Rugby Federation, for local coaches from Laos and Vietnam, many of whom had never seen a rugby ball before in their lives. Not only they received training in rugby-related skills for local coaches from Laos and Vietnam with help from the Lao Rugby Federation but also life skills and First Aid that form the core components of the programme.
At the present moment, the program is in its first phase but significant progress has been made so far. One example is Kim Boi district in rural Northern Viet Nam. By the end of last year, 683 young players had been registered and placed in 43 U13 and U15 age-group teams with 50% female participation (an area that the project places emphasis on). Previously, Vietnam’s only claim to rugby fame was France international fly-half Francois Trinh Duc, the first rugby player of Vietnamese descent. However, another important milestone occurred in the brief history of Vietnamese rugby was the organising of the first ever tag rugby tournament in the country last month with the participation of 42 teams from the Pass It Back program engaged in 95 action-packed games. The fact that all of the participants, including the organisers were all locals reflect the success of the program to date.
The target is to have 1800 participants by 2017 with further implementation in other countries in the region, as far as Afghanistan, but the early successes of the program have captured the imagination of the regional governing body Asia Rugby and World Rugby. With the World Cup in Japan in 3 years time, the future is bright for the rugby in this part of the world.