Last week I found myself back in Maseru, the town which between 2011 and 2013 was my home, to finally launch the project that I’ve been slowly edging towards for the last 3 years. It all started in a pub in the City of London as I was preparing to leave for Lesotho, an exciting and ambitious, if vague plan to bring rugby to the children of the Mountain Kingdom whilst also delivering some simple messages about HIV.
For two years I worked with Lesotho’s pioneering rugby players to turn a game played on a tennis court by six guys into the fastest growing sport in the Kingdom and was bestowed the honour of being the first President of the Federation of Lesotho Rugby (FLR). Since I returned in January, Iain Richards, Phil Fouche and I have been hatching a plan to bring to fruition our kids programme. And after a few months of discussions with Dolen Cymru, some weekends spent trying to think of rugby drills that emphasised the importance of vegetables in the diet (still open to suggestions), a rugby tournament in Wales and one very successful fundraising dinner, here we were.
The week was mostly spent at the Lesotho Sports and Recreation Commission with Litsitso Motseremeli and Roy Zhou. The room, which the FLR first shared with, and then essentially commandeered from the Handball Association, was bulging with rugby equipment. Tackle bags stood guard at the door. Litsitso and I would sit and the desk, the screens of our laptops jostling one another for space. Roy was perched precariously on the “balancing chair”, encouraged by our assurances that it was good for his core.
It was naive to think we would skip through the 10 session syllabus in the first morning. In fact, it took a slog of three days as we ground through each session, working through the structure, identifying the key messages, arguing over the health benefits of goat meat and sketching out games and drills on pages of Litsitso’s diary. But, by the end, we had something we all believed in. We hadn’t designed a rugby training programme – Litsito and Roy have been teaching school-kids how to play rugby for a couple of years now – we have developed an identity around the sport, one that taught the kids that if they wanted to be a rugby player, they needed to be aware of what it was to live a healthy and responsible life.
It’s hard to identify the moment something like this turns from concept to reality. Was it when we sat down and looked at the mess of a syllabus we’d drawn up – finished and good, but the digital equivalent of a writers original manuscript, a patchwork quilt of notes that only made sense to us and juxtaposed formatting. I suppose it was the first session Litsitso and Roy ran in a school the day after I left that made the Lesotho Rugby Academy real. But for me it was the day I was able to release the living allowance (to call it a wage would be an exaggeration) to Litsitso and Roy that for me marked the transition from concept to reality. For two years these guys have been working every day to grow the sport, getting by on £300 worth of mobile phone airtime donated by Econet, most of which is sold on to fund their fuel costs. Two bigger smiles there never were.
I had been humbled on my first day when I asked Litsitso, a father of two, how he had been getting by financially. He selflessly deferred the question: “I think I will answer only after you have asked Roy”. Roy also has a couple of kids, and I know things have been hard for these guys.
Having nailed the syllabus down we paid our respect to Government, and were met with the same non-committal enthusiasm I have grown to expect and accept, and a couple of potential local sponsors and old friends.
The Saturday was the national 7s tournament, the entirety of which I ended up refereeing despite a rather merry evening with old friends the night before. Exhausted and sunburnt by the end, I could barely lift the Dan Aylward Cup to hand to the winning team at the end, and I felt like I’d thoroughly earned the place my name has on it. It was not without controversy, with the National University having won the league phase, but been defeated by my old club, the second placed Maseru Kings, in a final, with a debate over whether the ball smacking someone in the head counted as a knock on surrounding the pivotal first try.
Leaving was hard. It had been a long week, and draining. Everything was in place. Litsitso brought tears to my eyes as I said a quiet goodbye to him and Roy in the car park to the gym where Lesotho Rugby was born. I realised that everything we’ve been working towards, the hundreds of people who have played a part in this story in one way or another, it all came down to these two guys, going into a school and delivering it for us. That is where it stands, and where it will succeed or fail. And I realised how much I need Litsitso and Roy.
On 6 October Roy and Litsitso went to the first school to begin the Lesotho Rugby Academy pilot programme. It will run until December, and we will update everyone to let them know how it is going.