The Cambodian National Rugby team attempt to reverse recent slump in form and return to their former glory in upcoming tournament in Laos
Photo by: JOE GARRISON
PSE Garuda flanker Ut Vuthy (left) – veteran stalwart of the Cambodian national team – powers past Stade Khmer’s Khoeun Sangsa during their Premiership match February 8 at Phnom Penh’s Old Stadium.
HOW quickly things change. Flashback to June 2006: The Cambodian national men's rugby team, the "Koupreys", became the toast of the nation as they dominated the week-long Asian Nations Series Regional Tournament in Phnom Penh.
Despite facing bigger and more experienced opponents, the youthful Koupreys were unfazed. They just ran and ran their tournament rivals into the ground. They thrashed Indonesia 30-7 in the opening match, then throttled Brunei, 41-10, which led up to the final tilt against Laos.
Crowds at Olympic Stadium grew during the week-long tournament as word spread among Cambodian sports fans of their national team playing the strange sport locals call bal aop or "hug ball".
The local, regional and international sporting press also began to take notice. Cambodia - a country with a storied sporting tradition during the 1950s and 60s but which more recently has fallen on hard times - has been winning again on the international stage, and winning big. The Koupreys were the cover story on the International Rugby Board website.
Rugby internet message boards and discussion groups around the world have filled with chatter about these young Cambodian flyers who are shaking up Asian rugby.
In the final match of the tournament, Cambodia outclassed Laos 30-0. The raucous crowd at the Olympic Stadium chanted, pounded drums, rang bells and waved tiny Cambodian flags. Chants of "Kou-prey! Kou-prey!" echoed through the rafters of the historic stadium well after the final whistle blowed.
It appeared that the sport of rugby had arrived in Cambodia.
"It was a great time," recalled current Kouprey forward Chey Sophal, who played in the 2006 tourney. "The Cambodian people love sport, and when Cambodian teams win, they get so happy and proud - it doesn't matter what sport it is."
Fast forward two years to July 2008 during the HSBC Asian 5 Nations Southeast Asia Regional Tournament in Jakarta, Indonesia. The dazed and confused Koupreys were no match for Laos in the opening match, losing 33-0. The vaunted Cambodian running attack was shut down by the Laotians. Costly penalties, missed tackles and poor decision-making showed up the Koupreys as disorganised and demoralised.
In another woeful performance three days later against Indonesia, the Koupreys were blown away in the second half, giving up 25 points in one horrific eight-minute stretch. The only consolation from a 55-3 pummeling was a penalty kick in the final minutes to avoid the indignity of being shut out in the tournament.
"It was like a bad dream," said halfback Pich Ratana, who is now in his third year with the Koupreys. "The whole week there [in Jakarta], we just couldn't do anything, couldn't get anything going. It was very frustrating."
Koupreys' fall from grace
In the past year, the Koupreys have fallen from being regional champions to being regional minnows, having lost three test matches in a row by a combined score of 103-17.
"Not many people talk about the Koupreys anymore," added Chey Sophal. "A lot has changed."
New Kouprey head coach Peter Maley pointed out that the year after dominating the Phnom Penh tournament, the Koupreys continued to be competitive in the Southeast Asian region, beating Brunei and Laos convincingly, while losing to Indonesia by a single point.
Maley cited several factors that led to the Kouprey misfortunes of 2008: lack of team depth, the absence of several key players, improved play by Kouprey opponents and the increased use of foreign players by the Laos and Indonesian national teams.
The International Rugby Board (IRB), the international governing body of rugby, allows foreigners to play for national teams as long they satisfy a three-year continuous residency requirement.
In last year's Jakarta tournament, Laos had six foreigners on its roster, while Indonesia had seven. By contrast, Cambodia only had one.
"[The foreigners] certainly contributed to their success," said Maley. "They brought a lot of skill and rugby experience, and raised the level of their teams."
In the 2006 Kouprey championship season, three foreigners played for Cambodia, all of them starters. By 2007, the number had increased to six, with five making the starting fifteen.
For next week's HSBC Asian 5 Nations Regional Tournament in Laos, the Kouprey roster includes three foreigners: Frenchman Francois Bleriot, Australian Ralph McMillan and New Zealander Rob Baker. Bleriot and McMillan missed the tournament last year after playing in 2006 and 2007. Baker is making his Kouprey debut.
"I'm proud of the fact that we had a nearly all Khmer team last year," added Maley. "It showed how committed we are to national rugby development. But at the same time, having some quality expat players in key positions would have really helped. I think the results last year would have been very different."
Still, a case can be made that fielding a purely domestic team in international competitions is the best long-term strategy for national rugby development.
"We don't want to focus on the past. That's over. We need to focus on what's ahead," said Maley. "We have some real potential on this team. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people this year."
Chey Sophal is also optimistic about his team's chances and a return to the glory days.
"We have a good team, and once we start winning, we'll start hearing Cambodian people talking about the Kouprey's again."