How women are leading a rugby renaissance in Laos, with the help of Hong Kong
After practising on a parking lot, the team come to Hong Kong with the diminutive Lao Khang proving an ‘absolute inspiration to all women’
There are 40,000 stories being told in Hong Kong Stadium this weekend and not all are soaked in booze. They just don’t make for quite a compelling photo op and it’s only natural to gravitate towards the pageantry and revelry if you come from a country where rugby is alien.
One of those countries would most certainly be Laos. However, if you want to find the true soul of this game then look no further than this landlocked country in the middle of the Indochinese peninsula.
Roughly the same size as the state of Oregon, it’s population is less than Hong Kong at a shade under seven million people. The remote and mountainous northern province of Xiangkhouang is the most rural of rural regions and of the 270 million bombs that were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war, the majority were in this province.
The remnants of many are still live and lingering and while they may not have electricity and proper health services in many areas, thanks to determined work by a few young women they do have rugby.
American Megan Knight is a rugby player who has been in the country for eight years and is an adviser with the Lao Rugby Federation Partnerships and Development. Not only is she quick on the pitch, she is also quick to give credit for the growth of rugby in the country to the locals. People like the diminutive Lao Khang, who hails from Xiangkhouang. “She’s an absolute inspiration to all the women in her village,” Knight said.
They were in town with the Lao women’s rugby team to play in a Kowloon rugby fest, as well as a few exhibition matches. And to watch the Sevens, of course.
A force on the pitch, Khang was transfixed as China destroyed South Africa 31-14 in the women’s final. “We have played China a few times,” she said. “They are so big, so tall, so muscular and so skilled.”
That the Laos women have even been on the same pitch as the new power in women’s sevens is remarkable in itself. Although they have never been in the main sevens draw before, they have been coming to Hong Kong for a few years now to participate in other events.
“Up in the provinces it’s tag rugby,” Knight said, “because they are playing on stone and dirt surfaces in bare feet so it’s obviously not safe to play full contact”. But play they do. “Between the provinces in the north and the capital of Vientiane we have about 3,000 players and 57 per cent are females.”
There is no budget for a proper grass pitch so part of the team practised in a car park before coming to Hong Kong. However, thanks to some local groups around here things are changing.
“The Hong Kong community has a number of clubs and schools that collect shoes for us and also send financial support,” Knight said. “It allows us to take the kids on weekends to areas where there are grass pitches and they can work on tackling skills.”
Before rugby programmes arrived in the northern villages, none of the women were allowed to play sport by their parents. “With rugby we saw it as an opportunity that girls could access,” said Knight. “But such is the popularity of the sport today that a number of rural villages only have female teams with local role models.”
Few are bigger and more inspirational than Khang, who admits she was never particularly athletic before trying rugby. “What I liked the most about rugby in the beginning was that everybody could play,” she said.
Today she manages 45 coaches and 70 teams in the 11- to 16-year-old age group. Because she was one of the first to emerge as a leader in her community, she was invited to places like Australia, the UK, the Philippines and Hong Kong to speak. “I would never have had an opportunity to see these places without rugby.”
Many girls in her community get married at 15 or 16 and once that happens they are no longer allowed to participate in sport. But thanks to people like Khang that is changing. She won’t dwell on the groups opposed to change because she is too busy focusing on creating opportunities for younger girls.
“Sport can foster positive change, no doubt,” she said. “It depends on the individual whether or not you accept the opportunities you get and thanks to a number of groups in Hong Kong, and in the rugby community internationally, I have been lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to all these places and develop skills to use back home.”
In 2014, she won a global athletes in excellence award and with it a scholarship to study English abroad, including a two-month stint in Hong Kong where she also played 15s with a local side.
“The facilities and the pitches are amazing here and everyone gets to play including kids of all ages. “But to me the people of Hong Kong are what makes it special. Everyone was so open and welcoming.”
You can knock this town, and people do, but there are so many groups who have no idea how much their generosity has transcended borders and cultures. The game of rugby may be played on the pitch, but the soul of the sport has no boundaries.