On his return from studying in America, Nguyen Gia Duc started playing rugby.
“I was just starting work,” he recalls. “I had quite a lot of free time, was going to the gym and was quite strong. I wanted to play some sort of contact sport and thought rugby would be a good fit.”
At the time, so alien was the sport to Vietnam that Duc had no idea how it was played. He had never watched it on TV, and certainly had no idea about the differences between Union and League.
“For me it was counter-intuitive,” laughs the winger. “You couldn’t pass forwards, only backwards. But I was quite fast.”
Six years later Duc is one of three Vietnamese players in the Hanoi Dragons, the rugby union team jointly responsible for organising the international rugby tournament in early September. In 2008 the team were looking to create a rugby federation in Vietnam that would be affiliated to the International Rugby Board (IRB). But a basic requirement is that there is Vietnamese participation in the sport. This means, says Duc, having “a group of Vietnamese playing on a regular basis. We have to prove that people are actually playing rugby”. With almost no Vietnamese players in Saigon and just a handful participating regularly in Hanoi, there was not enough interest to get it recognized officially.
Organised together with the British Embassy, it is hoped the upcoming tournament on Sep. 7 at Hang Day Stadium may create the impetus to change all that. Officially titled the London Olympic Legacy International Rugby Friendship Tournament 2013, at the time of writing, four teams had confirmed participation: the Saigon Geckos, the Bucks Rugby Club in Singapore, the Thai Navy and Airforce and the Hanoi Dragons. Other teams from Laos, Cambodia and possibly Hong Kong are expected to be involved.
Consisting of full contact Rugby 10s games between the various teams as well as an exhibition of junior rugby in Hanoi, according to Simon Pickett, the logistics guy behind both the event and the Hanoi Dragons, “the tournament is a celebration of British sport. Rugby was born in England and the British embassy is bringing something unique [to the capital] as part of their 40-year celebrations of diplomatic relations with Vietnam.”
Adds Duc: “I hope it will improve the rugby exposure in Hanoi… and that it will be a good day for us. Maybe we can get a few hundred, several hundred or a thousand people to come, and we will have food and drinks there. It will be a fun occasion.”
A large number of participants will be Asian, something that both Duc and Simon hope will be inspirational to potential local players. Then there are the games themselves, which will be televised on VTV4 and Yan TV. Says Simon, “We play tens, it is quick, it is fast, the ball is in motion for a lot of the time, it should be exciting. You see tackles, you will see tries, lineouts… The lineouts are spectacular to watch.”
Held at the 22,000-capacity Hang Day Stadium, the largest venue of its kind in central Hanoi, it should be a day to remember.
As well as helping to foster sporting links between the UK, Vietnam and other countries taking part in the tournament, the event is being seen as a pre-cursor to the Asian Games in 2019, which will take place in Hanoi. The games will have a Rugby 7s tournament, and the hope is that Vietnam will be able to enter their own team. However, both Duc and Simon admit that reaching this goal represents a challenge.
Creating a rugby culture requires teaching it at grass roots level, at schools. This is a role that the Hanoi Dragons may have to try and fill. As Simon says, “We need people to drive it.” While the sport is presently taught at the Lycee Francais Alexandre Yersin school and with less emphasis at UNIS, beyond that it is almost non-existent in schools throughout Vietnam.
One of the main problems is that to play rugby you need grass — there is a lack of grass football pitches in Vietnam. As the pair explain, rugby cannot be played either on dirt or artificial astro turf. It will lead to too many injuries. And Vietnamese schools simply don’t have the facilities or the sports fields.
“I think we can start with the international schools,” says Duc, “because they tend to have better facilities. I went to a Vietnamese school when I was young, we really don’t have the sports fields or the facilities.”
Adds Simon: “With IRB accreditation, the IRB would employ someone to work specifically to developing those school programmes and training regimes, reaching out into communities to start making it snowball. But it is a bit chicken and egg at the moment. We don’t have the personnel, the people with the time and even the energy to make the nest.”
A Multi-National Sport
Perhaps the biggest influence on developing rugby locally will be people like Duc. A key member of the Hanoi Dragons, he is a potential role model for aspiring players, with a personal desire to see the sport grow.
He also loves the multi-national nature of the game. The Hanoi Dragons has members from everywhere — France, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Wales, Ireland and Japan.
“It’s very multi-racial, very international,” he says. “The Japanese players [work six-and-a-half days a week but] still play. They play with us once a week — they make a lot of effort.”
The hope is that the Sep. 7 tournament will be the catalyst to add Vietnam to this multi-racial, multi-national mix. If three local players can turn into 100, then maybe IRB accreditation is a future possibility.