KABUL, Afghanistan – While the sun gradually peaked out past bloated white clouds, teams from more than 12 nations hit the field for an electrified game of touch rugby.
To inexperienced eyes, this game can be confused with American football or even a game of soccer. But if you ask the British to explain it, it would go something like this.
“Rugby is ‘God’s sport,’” said British Army Staff Sgt. Michael Lawrence. “Rugby is the only true team sport, in the world where individual skill is an added extra. No one man makes a team in rugby, unlike soccer.”
The sheer physical nature of the sport tests every person’s physical fitness, muscular endurance and above all, courage. Whether rugby 7’s or rugby 15’s, it’s not a sport for the faint of heart.
Rugby 7’s is a shorter version of the full game of 15’s. The difference between the two are there are 7 players, not the normal 15, and the game is only 7 minutes each half, not 40 as in the full game. It is, however, played on the same size field as 15’s.
To avoid injury to the players, due to the high intensity of the sport, the multinational force players wrapped their arms around their opponent’s legs or waist to stop progress.
“I love to play tackle rugby,” said Afghan Rugby player Haroon Zadran. “This is my first time playing touch, but it still was fun and very physical.”
The first game of the afternoon was played between the Afghanistan Rugby Team and the British Army’s 21st Signal Regiment Air Support, who won last year’s International Security Assistance Forces tournament.
Although this young Afghan team lost their first game to last year’s British champs, these warriors are no stranger to continuing the fight, not giving up.
“We are warriors,” said Zadran. “We have been fighting all our lives, and now is not the time to give up and give in. We have a dream, and that dream is to be in the Olympics to represent our country.”
ISAF’s rugby coaches, Michael Lawrence and Steve Weaver, played a large role in making this tournament possible for dedicated rugby players, as well as the local Afghan team.
“This Afghan team has trained with the ISAF team since July,” said Lawrence. “They meet with [the ISAF Rugby Team] for about 2 to 3 hours every Friday. We wanted to give them the opportunity to play against sides they have never played before. We want them to realize their potential, continue to get better and make it to the next level.”
Afghanistan will apply for membership in the Asian Rugby Football Union at a meeting in November. If all goes well, the young Afghanistan team can look forward to playing teams in India, Iran and possibly Pakistan.
While the majority of the teams in the tournament have been playing rugby for many years, a group of young American soldiers showed their skills for the first time on the pitch.
“The first time my guys played rugby was a little over a week ago,” said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul M. Morrissette, a Boston Army National Guardsman assigned to ISAF’s movement control team. “They are very young and their level of physical fitness is off the charts.”
Despite this being their first time playing, their athleticism and quick absorption of the game led these young guardsmen to shock a more seasoned Kabul Joint Support Unit team by denying their advancement to the finals.
Morrissette said the guys will take what they have learned from their British counterparts’ home with them, as they are set to redeploy later this year back to Boston, Mass.
After more than four hours of play, darkness fell upon the field. The game came down to its final minutes when the New Zealand team beat last year’s champions to win the overall tournament and was crowned ISAF’s 2011 Rugby ISAF Champions. Headquarters ISAF Joint Command B Team beat the Afghanistan Rugby Team to win the runner-up plate finals.
Although the Afghan team lost the tournament, they expanded their relationships and gained more support.
“If this young Afghan team continues to play in the manner at which I’ve seen and receive the constant support of ISAF, I think it will take them very far,” said Lawrence. “Maybe the Olympics will be for real and not a dream.”
On behalf of the Irish Rugby Football Union, Lawrence presented the Afghanistan Rugby Team 15 new rugby balls. The IRFU wanted to show their support by donating rugby kits to the young Afghan team.
“This rugby tournament was about building continuous relationships with all nations,” said Lawrence. “It allowed rugby players from all over the world to play a sport they love, that I love so much. This game gave all who participated in the tournament an opportunity to express themselves for just a few hours.”