In a significant first of its kind in Cambodia, a camp for women rugby players was organised in the coastal town of Kep recently, marking the start of a major initiative to create equal opportunities in a sport that is widely regarded as a male preserve.
The brain behind this novel experiment is local rugby development charity Kampuchea Balopp, which works within the NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) for the development of rugby here.
The camp, attended by as many as 20 girls, was directed by KB’s program development manager Jean-Baptiste Suberbie, who organised a similar meet last July for the men’s national team, the Koupreys, ahead of their HSBC Asian 5 Nations double-header against Brunei.
The hectic two-day camp activities included a trek to Kep’s famous Little Buddha, walking in the forest and rugby training sessions on the beach to hone individual and team skills.
“We dealt with all aspects of rugby. We had a two-hour beach rugby tournament – four teams of five players each. It was intense and very rewarding,” Suberbie told the Post in a post-camp interview.
“It was also a good experience for the local inhabitants, watching the girls play rugby.”
At the end of the camp, an interactive session with the participants showed that the two days had gone down very well and everyone was eagerly looking forward to the next.
Asked by the Post whether he had any plans to organise a similar camp in the near future, Suberbie said it would depend on whether they could find an international game for the team.
“In Cambodia at the moment, you have only two places where you have women’s teams – PSE and French school [Rene Descartes]. Every month they play against each other. To improve they need to play different opponents,” he said.
Meanwhile, KB is in discussion with Chris Mastaglio from the Laos Rugby Federation on the possibility of holding a small triangular tournament involving Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.
“If this happens, then we will organise another camp like this to make sure the girls are well prepared to represent the country,” Suberbie added.
“Now the key is to find a sponsor who will help us to make this trip to Laos – that is another story, another challenge.”
The KB program development manager outlined some steps to help speed up the development of rugby in the Kingdom.
“The best way to develop rugby is to give the tools to the Cambodian people to do it. It has been almost 15 years that Cambodians have been playing rugby, but since the beginning it has always been expats who are coaching and trying to promote the game.
“That is not development. At Kampuchea Balopp, we believe that if we train some Cambodian players to be coaches, the development will be sustainable.
“At the moment, I am training four coaches, three boys and one girl, who are working full time for KB. My point of view is that the future rests with them.
“To achieve overall success, the Cambodian Federation of Rugby will have to seek out talent in public and private schools.
“As for the promotion of the sport, the key is to find a way to show our monthly [Cambodian Federation of Rugby] tournament on television. Seven-a-side is easy to understand and it is more enjoyable for people who might not have seen rugby than the regular 15s. So the CFR should prioritise the sevens game.”
Suberbie noted that KB’s main objective was not to develop rugby as such but to use the game as a tool of education and social inclusion for disadvantaged children. “Our vision is to continue to do this for more and more kids,” he said.
Partnerships have been established with the rugby communities in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and France.
“We are in discussion with famous French team Stade Toulousain to be our main partners,” he added.
Suberbie also revealed they were currently looking for current and ex-professional players to be KB ambassadors. “We have two French national team members, Brice Dulin and Maxime Machenaud, as ambassadors. They will help us to get in touch with other professional clubs,” he said.
“We are also in partnership with another rugby association called Serge Betsen Academy, founded by former French flanker Serge Betsen. SBA is doing in Cameroon what we are doing here. Last year they helped us with some funding and hopefully we [will] manage to bring Serge Betsen over to let him see what we are doing.”
Kampuchea Balopp also enjoys “external technical support” from the CFR. “One of the CFR coaches, Pierres Yves Todeur, is helping me to improve skills of KB coaches,” Suberbie said.
“Tondeur has a lot of experience in this domain and his input has a big impact. Even though we are totally independent, we work closely with the CFR, mainly during junior tournaments where 70 per cent of players are under the KB program and the rest are from [Rene Descartes] school.”
KB have recently taken the step of appointing their first female coach, 22-year-old Sam Chan Pheary, who has been playing rugby since 2009 and has an older brother who plays for the Garudas, the senior men’s team at PSE.
“I have always trained at PSE once a week. This season, we train every Wednesday night,” she told the Post, adding that her coaches were Philippe Monnin and Pich Ratana.
Pheary admitted to a limited knowledge of international rugby, although she’d got to know about France fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc after he visited PSE in 2010.
“In Cambodia it is difficult to follow international rugby because there is no rugby on local TV. We need to go to expensive sports bars to watch far away from my home,” Pheary said.
“Sometimes I watch videos of a beautiful try on YouTube. The only favourite team of mine are the Koupreys.”
The coach recognised that the formation of a women’s national team is “very important for the development of rugby” here, while also expressing a desire to represent her country.
“At KB, we work with a lot of boys and girls. It is good for them to see that Cambodian women can play at international level,” she said.
“I also hope that KB continues to work with more and more NGOs to help more and more kids. I am confident we will get stronger, but we need time.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DAN RILEY