The tournament winner’s trophy may have depicted a carved Apsara dancer, but a very different side to Cambodian womanhood was on show at Olympic Stadium on Saturday as the women’s rugby national team made their international debut.
With many well-padded and sporting helmets, they threw themselves enthusiastically into scrummaging, hard tackling and diving around in the dirt at the Asian Rugby Football Union Women’s Rugby 7’s tournament.
Around 500 curious onlookers saw teams from South Korea, Laos, Thailand, Singapore and Cambodia go head to head throughout the day with an impressive Thai outfit beating Singapore in the final.
Laos exceeded all expectations to finish third in the tournament after performances that their coach Robert Klacek described as “awesome.”
“Rugby is a chance for Asian women to show their strength in a way they rarely get a chance to,” said Laos Assistant Manager Jenny Reddan.
After a slightly disappointing showing, the two Cambodian sides—one of which was a last-minute replacement for Iran—played off against one another for last place.
With women’s rugby barely in existence here, the purpose of the Phnom Penh tournament was to raise the standard in advance of December’s Southeast Asia Games in Thailand, according to tournament director Peter Maley.
“We’re definitely going for a bronze in that, which would help the sport here a lot,” he said, adding that only about 50 girls play contact rugby in Cambodia at present.
Still a niche sport in Asia, rugby is growing in popularity and the continent now boasts 25 international teams. Sixteen countries now field a women’s team, with Cambodia and Laos being the latest additions.
Ray Leos—one of the event’s organizers—was surprised at how enthusiastically the Cambodian girls embraced the idea of a sport associated more with muscle-bound, cauliflower-eared hulks from France or New Zealand.
“The Cambodian girls were into the idea,” he said. “The expat women we asked were scared by the tackling.”
Players from the visiting countries were similarly enthusiastic.
“If a guy can play, then why not us?” asked Laos captain Mouk Vongsouvath.
According to Singaporean captain Kristy The, the women’s game offers something different to the men’s variety. “What women lack in size they make up for in agility,” she said.
New to the game, the Cambodian side acknowledged that they have some catching up to do in order to compete internationally.
“We have been learning only a short period,” said Cambodian captain Peou Sophan, 18. “The other teams are more experienced.”
“It’s a big learning curve,” admitted Cambodia coach Andrew Newman. “The games have been good-natured. The problem sometimes is getting them to take it seriously enough.”
Tired and dusty from the day’s games, national team member Sophoan Peou, 19, promised that the tournament was just a start: “We can be as good as Thailand if we keep practicing.”