A 46-year-old Welshman scored the winning try but it was a great Khmer victory in
the first-ever senior grade Cambodian national rugby final, at Phnom Penh's Olympic
Stadium last Saturday (May 29), when Garudas beat Sisowath.
The Garudas become Cambodia's first national rugby champions.
"This is a great day for Cambodian rugby," declared Cambodian Rugby Federation
general secretary Philippe Monnin.
"It's a great story," enthused France 2 TV sports reporter Cedric Beaudou,
who was there with a crew, making a documentary on the development of the game here,
which will be screened to a potential audience of six million. They were inspired
by Cambodia being awarded the IRB development prize at the last World Rugby Cup.
France 2's presence in fact was the reason Monnin went to extraordinary lengths to
secure the stadium, which was last used for the first matches in 2000. But getting
permission was nerve-racking. "There is still no Minister of Sport and the Secretary
of State was in Thailand so it was very difficult and we finally didn't clinch a
deal till Friday night."
Beaudou said: "This is special for us, to be watching the beginning of rugby
in a country which has been battered by genocide and war. The Khmers have great natural
skills for the game. They lack size for the heavy tackling of the 15-man game, but
they make up for it with stamina, speed and reflexes. I think in two or three years
we could well see Cambodia at the Hong Kong Sevens."
Rugby got started here in the late 90s in Phnom Penh, with a few ex-pats (mainly
Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, French, even Americans) playing the touch game for fun. The
tackle game developed from there.
Mini championship winners PSE from Kampong Cham are saluted by Lycée René Descartes.
The competition comprises senior seven-a-side, junior 10-a-side, and a mini grade
seven-a-side where the kids wear velcro-attached webbing straps from the waist; when
a strap is snatched, it's deemed to be a tackle. An occasional female is being seen
playing and it's expected that a girls' or women's competition is not far off.
There are an estimated 120 kids playing at junior level, about 100 seniors and some
40 in the minis.
The teams include Trapeang Russey, who are the children of rubber plantation workers
in Kampong Cham province; and street urchins living on pickings from the Stung Meanchey
garbage dump, who are being supported by PSE, a French NGO and play under that banner.
The latter are trained by Monnin. He is one of a dedicated bunch of ex-pats who devote
their private time to rugby coaching, training, refereeing and administration.
Monnin says the aim next year is to field the first 15-aside senior competition,
but the cost of transport and food for travelling players may be too high for the
fledging federation. "We have the player numbers and the enthusiasm," he
The major grades are allowed up to three foreigner players.
A large crowd of extremely vocal Khmer supporters, school contingents, parents and
ex-pats maintained a spirited level of barracking that matched the expenditure of
energy on the field. Games were played with pace and commitment; many Khmers discarded
their boots or sneakers; heat-exhausted players were dragged off by their feet.
The torrid junior final was scoreless at the break and a 7-0 victory was secured
for ISPP against Sisowath, when captain Mike Bleakley scored a try from second phase
play after a scrum. Lindsey Jones converted.
In the senior final the score rose rapidly to 19-19 at the whistle and they began
a sudden-death playoff (first to score wins). Winger Chris Price, Cardiff-born rural
adviser at DFID (UK Embassy) was in the right place at the right time when the ball
came out to him and he scored easily in the corner.
In addition to playing a full season with Garudas, Price helps train 8-11 year olds
at LCD French school with Monnin and Norm Webb (owner of the Gym Bar, a major rugby
Results of the finals: Senior, Garudas 24, Sisowath 19; junior, ISPP 7, Sisowath
0; junior consolation, Lycee Rene Descartes 17, Trapeang Russey 5; mini, PSE 15,
Lycee Rene Descartes 10. The main trophy was presented by French Ambassador Ivon