The Koupreys, Cambodia’s national rugby team, shot to the top of the Asian Football Rugby Union’s newly-created Sixth Division last week with three straight victories, scoring an aggregate of 101 points with only 17 scored against them.
In the tournament, played at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, Cambodia’s first-ever officially sanctioned international rugby competition, the 29-man squad blanked Laos 30 to 0 on July 1, beat Brunei 41 to 10 on June 29 and in only its third-ever, 15-a-side match on June 27, it defeated Indonesia 30 to 7.
“That sort of record speaks for itself,” head coach Laurie Karatau said Thursday. “They just got stronger and fitter with each game.”
“It’s a tremendous result,” said Karatau, originally from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand and a player himself for 30 years. “I don’t think even the All Blacks have played three international games in one week.”
The team is named after the critically endangered Cambodian forest ox last observed in 1957 and designated as Cambodia’s official animal by then-prince Norodom Sihanouk three years later.
In their international debut in May 2005, Cambodia fell to Macau 46 to 7 in Hong Kong. But they went on to defeat Laos 38 to 0 at an away match in October.
Getting a Cambodian side into shape has been a battle, according to Karatau, who only began training the squad for the Division Six tournament in April.
Twelve to 13 of the starting 15 and about half the overall squad once lived in the Stung Meanchey garbage dump outside Phnom Penh, according to Philippe Monnin, secretary-general of the Cambodian Federation of Rugby.
“It’s liberated them,” he said. The players, who were in the care of the French charity Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant as children, have undergone immense psychological growth as a result of playing.
“They’re sure of themselves. They know they’re people in their own right. They’re not afraid to tackle,” he said.
But getting players used to the violence of playing at 15-a-side, instead of the 7-a-side matches they were used to was a considerable challenge, Karatau said.
“It was difficult to get them to commit themselves to the scrums and lineups and the rucks and the mauls,” he said. With players standing on average at 1.65 meters and weighing from 75 to 80 kgs, Karatau also said they had about half the mass of players on established international sides.
“Indonesia and Brunei were full of expatriates and these guys are six-foot-three and six-foot-four and 15 stone,” he said. “I think we beat them in speed and we stopped them from scoring points.”
As division leaders, Cambodia can now compete for promotion to Division Five, which the Cambodian Federation of Rugby intends to discuss at its July 15 general meeting.
“There’s probably some in there that if you sent them overseas to play in club sides in England, New Zealand or Australia would actually fare pretty well,” Karatau said.