Five years after its launch, the Rugby Opens Borders (ROB) initiative continues to reach out to young people from war-torn countries who have found refuge in Austria.

Using rugby as a means of bringing together boys and girls and helping them to feel valued members of society, ROB has extended the hand of friendship to hundreds of teenagers by organising training sessions and social get-togethers as well as offering pastoral care.

The value of ROB in helping these vulnerable young people was recognised a year after its inception when the Award for Character was presented to founder and then project manager, Udo Richson, at the World Rugby Awards in 2016.

From a small base of five to 10 active participants, ROB is now striving to field three teams – Under-14s, girls-only and senior men – on a consistent basis.

Even with its relatively short lifespan, ROB has already left a rugby legacy as three graduates from the original batch of players are now playing for the powerhouses of Austrian club rugby, Vienna-based RC Donau, where ROB is based.

“They are not in the first team yet, but they will be,” is the confident prediction of ROB’s current project manager, Ana Ruiz.

“We also have one of our current U18s players playing for the Austrian U18 national team,” she added.

Values of rugby

Ruiz has taken over the reins of Rugby Opens Borders from Richson, a former Austrian rugby international who believed the transformative powers of rugby could help those who fled across several borders to find sanctuary in Austria.

Explaining how this unique programme came about, Richson said: “Like with many things, it started with an idea,” Richson told World Rugby. “At the start of 2015, the vice-president of my rugby club, Donau Wien, asked me if I was interested in developing a social project. I said yes straight away because I had a rough time when I was younger, and the values of rugby helped me get my life in order.

“I’d heard that there were many unaccompanied refugee children living in shelters in Austria while they waited to see if they'd be allowed to stay in the country or not. Some would be here doing nothing for up to a year.

“So, we took some rugby balls to these shelters to see if they’d be interested in joining us for training. 

“At first, they looked puzzled as to why the ball was egg-shaped but after we showed them a video and explained what the sport was all about, they were keen to get involved. They loved the physical side of rugby because it enabled them to let off some steam.”

Ruiz, nickname ‘Mini’ for her diminutive stature, came on board in 2016 – the same year that an all-refugee sevens team competed at the United World Games.

Now, the focus of ROB has changed, as has the status of many of the refugees involved.

Changing perceptions

“We have changed the target group because there are no more unaccompanied refugee minors in Austria,” she said. 

“We want to focus on the integration of refugees with the local community rather than on just creating a team of refugees.

“We want to change Austrian society’s vision of refugees, and show them that refugees are not just sitting around in parks and doing nothing and that everybody can enjoy a new sport and take part in other activities, whether that is playing competitive rugby or helping charities to give out food to those in need or planting trees.”

Ruiz hopes to enter a mixed-gender, mixed-age and mixed-ability ROB team in various touch, beach and snow rugby tournaments in the near future, while they are in the process of building up enough numbers – and skill and fitness levels – to be able to take part in 15s and sevens matches on a more regular basis.

However, the success of ROB is not measured on on-field wins and losses, more the lasting effect the project has had on the happiness and wellbeing of its participants.

“The biggest success we have had is the impact on the players’ lives,” said Ruiz, unequivocally.

“We have many participants who now, because of ROB, they have a family.

“Most coach and referee as well as play rugby, and because of that it improves their German (speaking) skills and that makes it easier for them to get scholarships.

“Yesterday, I had a talk with one of our players who came to us at 14/15 and he is now a man; rugby has helped to change his attitude. He studies and is married and no longer sees himself as this ‘gangster teenager’.

“I think we do a great job in helping refugee children keep away from bad influences.”