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Rugby is salvation for Thai slum kids

Rugby is fun but also teaches life values to poor Bangkok children

Sopo and his Tiger 'warriors' (photo: Robert Brewer) Sopo and his Tiger 'warriors' (photo: Robert Brewer)
  • John Boley, Bangkok
  • Thailand
  • February 25, 2011
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It’s World Cup year, but you would hardly expect this group of kids from the back streets of Bangkok to care, or even to know what rugby is.

But they do. Thanks to a program run by regional organization Ark International, they are learning and playing one of the hardest and most exciting sports in the world, having fun and picking up vital life values. And in February they finished runners-up in the under-11 age group at the prestigious Bangkok International Rugby 10s (BIT) tournament.

The Nak Suu Rugby Academy’s motto is “Changing Lives Forever”. It is run by Ark Southeast Asia’s field director Sopo Fakaua, who explains: “The number of disaffected Thai youths is growing as a result of widespread poverty, lack of opportunity and educational drop-out. As a result, the generation rising will not have the training, skills or character needed to successfully live a life that will contribute to society.”

Ark International, a ministry of Youth With A Mission Perth, is an international body aiming to educate, train and facilitate ministry in Southeast Asia. Ark’s mission is to “defend the rights of children at risk, restoring dignity as children of God and developing their unique gifts and skills” and rugby turns out to be an ideal means to this end.

Sopo is New Zealand Samoan, born into the game and a former professional. “Rugby teaches discipline, teamwork and respect for authority” in addition to promoting general fitness and giving the kids a good time, he explains. “The goal of Nak Suu Tigers is to have a lasting impact on the lives of young people through rugby training and life skill development; building trust, hope and self-esteem to equip them to make better choices for their future.”

Nak Suu (in Thai: ‘warrior’) started in November 2009 and reaches more than 100 children weekly from five different Bangkok slum communities.

Each week, the children gather for 90 minutes of rugby, 45 minutes of mentoring (through a mentorship/teaching program) and then finish with a meal together.

Rugby is growing fast in popularity worldwide and Thailand is no exception – its national team is a creditable 60th out of 95 in the official world standings. But it is mainly played in patrician schools and universities, top military establishments and among the wealthy Western and Japanese expat communities.

So when the 10-year-old warrior Tigers ran out for the first of their pool games at the annual BIT event organized by the Bangkok Lions junior rugby club, some of them were visibly daunted by such ‘exalted’ company and the presence of hundreds of spectators.

But they soon shrugged off their nerves, not to mention all but one of the competing teams from as far away as Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, and ended the weekend receiving their runners-up medals from a recently-retired World Cup-winning Springbok, Bobby Skinstad.

Later they posed with members of an over-50s veterans’ team as one of the tournament organizers – dressed unaccountably as Superman – presented Nak Suu with a check to help expand the program.

Sopo was beaming. “It was an exciting time to see the kids thrive and be encouraged in their abilities off and on the field at this event,” he said.

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