Rugby is a sport, a passion, a disease you catch. There is nothing like it on or off the field
The normally peaceful and manicured playing fields of the RMIT campus are slowly beginning to reverberate, gently shuddering in time to what sounds strangely like the distant stampede of cattle, perhaps marauding their way relentlessly over Nguyen Van Linh. Students are lazing on the grass in the afternoon sun, children are chasing footballs and picnic blankets are tucked into corners of precious shade, all apparently unperturbed by the disturbance. Indeed, most are avidly watching the source of the noise – which turns out not to be bovines but 15 or 20 very powerfully built men charging around a pitch chasing an oval shaped ball. These are the Geckos, Saigon’s only rugby union team.
Put simply, the aim of rugby is to carry the ball and touch it down in the opposition’s goal area at the end of the pitch. This apparently ‘simple’ act is complicated by the rule that the ball can only been thrown backwards (but can be kicked forwards) and the presence of 15 extremely large people on the other team doing (almost) anything to stop you. It is this physical confrontation, combined with the fleet feet and creative flair required to escape it, which make rugby such a popular global sport. Last month’s British and Irish Lions tour of Australia was watched by a global audience of tens of millions, but likely passed by the Vietnamese population without fanfare.
It would be fair to say that rugby union is not a particularly popular, or well-known sport, in Vietnam. It languishes a long way down the list of sports that the local Vietnamese are most likely to participate in, but for a huge part of the expatriate community rugby is their national sport. For the Welsh (I’ll admit that includes me) there is no other sport. Each weekend in every village across Wales, whole communities make their way to rugby clubs, laden with cakes, sandwiches and beer… lots of beer, to watch their team play and to exchange gossip and news. The games, and the club itself, are the heart of the community.
“In many ways it’s almost a social club. It’s more about what happens off the pitch than on it,” says Chris Paget, the Club Secretary of the Saigon Geckos. “People come here to
mix with different types of people of all ages. Saigon can be a stressful city and I see the rugby club as a release.”
Punted Into Touch
Started in 1993, the club has about 100 members, with a high percentage of women and 14 different nationalities represented. As annual fees go, it’s relatively cheap to join (VND750,000/person/year or VND1 million for a couple, and includes a club polo shirt that entitles members to discounts and free beer and soft drinks after practice). The club runs
both touch and contact rugby sessions each week. Touch rugby (as the name suggest) is a non-contact version of the full game where the player with the ball must stop running
when someone on the opposite team ‘tackles’ them by placing both of their hands on them. By removing the physical aspect it makes the game more accessible for beginners.
“In some ways we are a touch rugby club, with a contact section,” explains Chris. “Anyone can play touch – boys, girls, all ages.”
The Club Captain Simon Robson agrees: “If you’ve never played rugby before you can start with touch, get a feel for the game and then begin to slowly introduce the rules and
the physical contact.”
Touch rugby has also proved to be a more successful way to get local Vietnamese to participate in a sport where the physicality can sometimes be initially intimidating. “We have Vietnamese members, and twice a year we hold touch rugby tournaments with entirely Vietnamese teams involved,” adds Simon. “But the physical side can be challenging for them.”
This means that very few Vietnamese ever move on to playing full contact rugby, but this is something that Simon hopes he can change by getting more people, particularly locals, to join. “We want to get the word out and get the club more involved with the local community in order to make people feel that the Geckos are something that they can be part of.”
While it’s clear that the social side of the club is important, it would be wrong to assume the Geckos don’t take their rugby seriously. They went unbeaten in all games for two and half years, and although there is only one other club in Vietnam, the Hanoi Dragons, the Geckos still play as many as 20 games a season as part of the Southeast Asia Cup against teams from Cambodia, Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur. Saigon is also a popular stop for touring teams.
“It’s a great experience for the visiting teams and we can give them a good, competitive game. We get lots of offers or invitations from touring teams to play us, and we play a few each year, but we struggle to fit them all in. The city of Saigon definitely attracts them over,” says Chris.
The club is growing and Simon is cautious but ambitious about the future. “We’d like to win the Asian Cup, maybe this year or next year. We are a good team but to get to that level in a very competitive league we need an increase in members and community involvement and support to push us on.”
The next home match is against a touring New Zealand team – the Manurewa Druids – on August 24.
You can try touch rugby for free at 4pm on Saturdays (RMIT Campus), or contact the Saigon Geckos at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.