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Rugby players take the field all for the love of the game

Rugby remains a purely amateur sport in Cambodia, with the local contingent of players happy to commit and respectful of the opportunities it can afford

WITH the 2009 Angkor 10s rugby tournament just a week away and the Cambodian Rugby Premiership season set to begin next month, Cambodia’s rugby players are anxious to get things under way.

But unlike the professional footballers of the Cambodian Premier League, which finished its season last month, no one playing in the Cambodian Rugby Premiership gets paid.

“We do it because we enjoy it, that’s all,” said Vannak Vireak, the PSE Garuda centre and national team stalwart, who is widely regarded as one of the best current Cambodian rugby players.

Although the sport of rugby union has been openly professional since 1995, the game remains strictly an amateur sport in many countries, especially small, less-developed ones such as Cambodia.

Much of this has to do with funding. Despite the Cambodian Federation of Rugby – the national sanctioning body of rugby union – in existence for nearly a decade, development resources and team sponsorships are often hard to come by.

“Realistically, we are a long way off from paying players,” remarked CFR Secretary General and former national team coach Peter Maley. “We have a lot of other pressing priorities, like fielding representative international sides in both the senior and junior grades; developing quality coaches and referees; getting better training facilities and game venues; and most importantly, becoming full members of the IRB [International Rugby Board].”

Still, Maley admires the grit, dedication and determination of the players who toil for months on end training in the blistering heat on fields of dirt, and who play a physically demanding sport for no monetary reward, often before sparse crowds.

“These guys put their bodies on the line every time they go out on the field,” adds Maley. “But rugby for them isn’t about the money, and it isn’t about the public attention. It’s about enjoying the sport and using it as a vehicle for other things in their lives.”

Vannak Vireak is a case in point. Playing for the Cambodian national team against Indonesia at the 2008 HSBC 5 Nations Regional Tournament in Jakarta, he prevented a score with a tackle near the goal line against an Indonesian player twice his size. In the process he suffered a broken nose and severe facial injuries, requiring extensive surgery.

“It hurt, that’s for sure,” said the humble, soft-spoken 24-year-old native of Pursat, who recently graduated with a degree in tourism from the National University of Management. “But somebody had to make that tackle,” he grinned.

During this previous rugby season, Vannak Vireak was back at it again, leading his PSE Garuda team to another Premiership title and having another standout season as the starting centre for the Cambodian national team, the Koupreys.

“In our two matches against Laos, [Vannak] was awesome,” said Maley. “That injury had no effect on his rugby.”

Vannak Vireak claims the physical and mental challenges of the sport are well worth it. “Rugby has opened a lot of doors for me,” he stated. “It’s given me a chance to represent my country, travel to different parts of the world, and see and do things I would have never had the chance to do. It also maintains my fitness and my mental discipline.”

After next week’s Angkor 10s, Vannak Vireak and his Garuda teammate Vong Vannak, along with Chro Kim Seang of the Sisowath Knights, will travel to Singapore for a two-week player development clinic sponsored by the Singapore Rugby Union. The three players will be hosted by the Bedok Kings, a Singapore club who will also be participating in the Angkor 10s this year. Like Vannak Vireak, Vong Vannak and Chro Kim Seang have also been capped 14 times for Cambodia.

Vannak Vireak said he is looking forward to the Singapore trip. “It will be good training with the Singapore players,” he said. “I hope to learn a lot, and improve my skills and technique. Playing well and doing my best – that’s what makes rugby always enjoyable for me.”



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