Throughout its rich history, the northern region of Pakistan around Peshawar has known its fair share of tragedy, with invaders having included the Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Kushans, Huns, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Mughals and British among others.
But despite these uninvited visitors, the locals have always managed to keep their own unique traditions and culture alive while also adopting some of the better aspects of what their invaders had to offer. And from a sporting point of view, they have always taken a liking to games of a physical nature, such as Bushkushi, a sport with some similarities to rugby, which is played on horses using a sheep carcass as a ball.
But it is rugby itself that probably has more of a long-term future in this part of the world. The Pakistan Rugby Union (PRU) has been working in the area, introducing the game through the hugely successful Get Into Rugby (GIR) programme. The strapping locals have the physical attributes that will help them excel in rugby and already some 4,300 people have been introduced to the game through GIR.
Recently, PRU brought its domestic rugby championship to a close with the last few matches taking place in the northern division. At the same time an historic match was held in Peshawar between the Khyber Pakhtun Khwa (KPK) province and the Federal Administrated Tribal Agency (FATA).
Devastating attack on a school in Peshawar
And all this was off the back of December’s shocking attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in which at least 150 people died, including 133 children.
A total of 12 teams took part in the super league stage of the championship with teams involved from Pakistan Army, Lahore, Islamabad, AIT, Bahawalnagar Desert Camels, Lodran Spartans, Muzzafargarh Lions, Rahim Yar Khan Green Bears, Bahawalpur Eagles and Vehari Rugby Club.
“This was first time so many teams have taken part in the league and it is a first for the northern zone. The increased activity and player numbers is due to the GIR programme which PRU has been running. It has been hugely successful so far,” said Khuram Haroon, project manager of GIR Pakistan.
“Generally, this area of the country has noticed a sharp fall-off in the amount of sport being played due the ongoing adverse security situation in the region so this rise in rugby activity has been welcomed and appreciated by all concerned. And it was heartening to see the director general of sports for KPK and his counterpart at FATA at the match along with the president of the KPK Olympic Committee.
Minute's silence observed at rugby matches
Pakistan’s rugby community showed their solidarity with the people of FATA and KPK after the tragic incident at the school and a minute’s silence was observed at all games since the incident, including at the final official closing ceremony played in Lahore.
This historic match at KPK was won 15-0 by FATA and both teams are looking forward to the return match, which will be held shortly.
“We are extremely excited to have been able to successfully run the GIR programme alongside the league,” said Haroon.
“With the 2015-16 league now being planned, PRU intends to include yet more GIR activity coinciding with it thus ensuring new players are introduced to the game all the time.”
A few weeks back, PRU announced an exciting partnership with the renowned Ummed Jawan programme to develop a youth rugby system in under-privileged parts of the country. This programme provides opportunities for young people living in poverty to participate in sporting activity in a structured manner and enabling the development of a pathway for young athletes.
Target to create 15 men's and 10 women's teams
“Initially, a pilot programme is being run in one district with the view to expanding it nationwide in due course. The PRU is educating the trainers with the target of creating 15 men’s teams and 10 women’s teams and we are also working on providing a suitable rugby venue for training and playing and also for staging tournaments between clubs.
“GIR has been an invaluable tool for developing the game, especially for the women’s side. Before the programme was started, there was only a few female rugby players in Pakistan with no formal opportunities to play. We have already noticed a significant uptake in women and girls playing and we now have the numbers and quality to progress exponentially.”
To help that along the way, last week a World Rugby ‘Super Week’ was held in Lahore with three World Rugby-trained educators visiting from Sri Lanka to deliver Level 1 and 2 coaching and match officiating courses. Coaches and match officials from all over Pakistan attended the week-long programme and PRU plans to hold two more such weeks later this year.
Despite the challenges facing the game in Pakistan and in the face of occasional tragic set-backs, rugby is taking hold, offering a healthy and enjoyable pastime for all the people of this proud country, another example of how the sport’s values of respect, discipline, solidarity, passion and integrity are being lived.