Programme Notes for Guam vs India 18/06/05
To meteorologists, Guam’s region of the Pacific is known as Typhoon Alley. Occasionally, a big wind comes and blows everything away. At the end of 2002, Super Typhoon Pongsoona devastated Guam, but somehow the rugby posts on the miraculous Wettengel Rugby Field remained upright. It was a sign. Rugby was here, and it intended to stay.
Guam’s Wettengel Rugby Field, with its impeccable grass, its stands and scoreboard and lights, has become an island landmark. It provides a focus for all those drawn in by Guam’s remarkably inclusive approach to rugby. This international-sized arena, fringed with palm trees as a natural barrier against the jungle, features in the sharpest memories of all those newcomers who first played rugby here, on this field. It has captivated grizzled veterans, school-children, boys, girls, the truly athletic and those who thought they’d never see their toes again.
So why is this achievement so special? A mere nine years ago, the island of Guam had no rugby at all, no players, no pitch.
The field itself is only the most obvious and visible symbol of rugby’s burgeoning presence on the island. Arguably more important is Guam’s dynamic development program. Three years ago, on their own initiative, a passionate core of Guam’s rugby people decided to find and fund a Youth Development Officer. They went to Australia, and in a startling demonstration of the ‘can-do’ attitude, brought one back.
This energetic approach to spreading the good news quickly paid dividends. Within a year, touch rugby was a popular game in eight of Guam’s Middle Schools. This year, in a triumph for persistence and vision, the Independent Interscholastic Athletic Association of Guam (IIAAG) has sanctioned contact rugby as an official competitive high school sport. This accomplishment needs to be put in its true perspective – right here on Guam, right now, rugby has become an official school sport within the federal parameters of the United States educational system. Years from today, when rugby reaches its full potential as a genuinely global sport, this pioneering achievement on a small Pacific island may seem a significant step forward in rugby’s wider international development.
Not that Guam’s school-children are much bothered with their part in history. They just love the running and passing, the tackling and being tackled, the camaraderie and sporting fellowship that comes with the rugby package. The official High School League is a competition of increasing quality, full of enthusiasm and outrageous skill. And that’s not all. The girls on Guam aren’t going to let the boys monopolise the fun. There’s also a high-school league for girls’ teams playing ‘tag’ rugby. On Guam, everyone gets to join the party.
This admirable situation, like the Wettengel Rugby Field, was created from nothing. The sheer quantity of good faith and hard work that has gone into making such a situation possible makes it that much more likely to endure. Look at the pitch. A once rocky, hilly patch of jungle will today host its first IRB World Cup qualifying match. The Wettengel Field is a thing of beauty in June under brochure-blue skies. It also has solid foundations. As well as being pretty, the home-built irrigation systems can drain monsoons and deal with the toughest of Pacific storms.
No wonder, then, that Guam is already an international rugby venue. The island’s annual True Grit 10’s has welcomed visiting teams from Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Saipan, Korea, and France. All have been enriched by the experience, whatever bumps and bruises they’ve taken away as part of the learning process more commonly known as rugby. This weekend the Field becomes an international venue in the true sense, staging Guam’s first ever 15-a-side Test match, against India. Such a proud outcome is a lasting tribute to all the otherwise sane men and women of Guam who have worked so hard to share the joy of rugby.
Today’s Test match and ARFU mid-year Council Meeting are undoubtedly significant milestones in the history of Guam rugby. Nevertheless, the greater ambition has been to get rugby going here for everyone. This weekend’s celebration is therefore not an end in itself. The boys and girls of Guam are learning a love of rugby in the schools. As they increasingly indulge that passion by rushing down to Wettengel at the weekends, Guam can be optimistic that this is only the first of many similar memorable events.
Guam is also looking forward to benefiting from its transfer to the Asia Rugby Football Union. As well as making logistical sense, it means that Guam’s national squad can aim to compete with teams in the region of a similar standard. On the pitch, Guam has developed a reputation as a close-knit group of hard-hitting and tenacious players. They look fit and well organised, partly because of conditioning schedules that include long runs through the lush interior of the island. It must be tempting for promising youngsters to join in just for the adventure of the training.
Off the pitch, visiting Asian Unions can be confident of a warm rugby welcome. This kind of cultural interchange, generously funded by the IRB, is one of the many benefits of a qualification series for RWC 2007. Neutral observers all over the world are looking forward to the fresh rugby rivalries and friendships that will last from now for a hundred years. For Guam, the nostalgia starts now, or if you prefer, these are the golden years when India and Guam first clashed on the once homely Wettengel Field.
Back in the here and now, Guam has a flourishing rugby community developed exclusively during the professional era. The island can therefore provide a valuable example of how best to develop the game globally in the twenty-first century. Rugby on Guam succeeds in blending traditional virtues like commitment, hard work, players and members volunteering skills and time (in return for a huge amount of fun), with a clear-eyed vision of how best to exploit partnerships with business and government.
The money for the impressive Wettengel Rugby Field, for example, comes largely from a $75,000 sponsorship deal with Budweiser. The club has involved Shell in junior rugby. Continental Airlines flies in the referees for the True Grit 10’s. The corporate sector is involved and enthusiastic about Guam’s plans for further development, including a second pitch and leading today’s high school players into tomorrow’s local championship of at least six senior teams. This island league will then feed players into a national squad to compete throughout the region.
The rugby people of Guam have achieved miracles, and not small ones, either. Given sufficient resources, Guam’s development program offers a model that can be perfected and rolled out across schools in Asia and the US mainland. Meanwhile, with IRB support, the Guam Rugby Union will continue to combine official funding, local enthusiasm and corporate involvement to ensure the growth and good health of the game for many years to come.