Following their defeat of Rwanda in the 2011 Kowloon 10s in Hong Kong, the King Penguins fulfilled their pledge for a rematch with what turned out to be an outstanding tour of Rwanda in June 2014. As with all tours, the anticipation and expectation were huge, and in this case, that expectation was exceeded on all fronts.
The tour began early on Monday morning with a wee snifter at Edinburgh Airport for the advanced party, consisting of Keith Wallace and our mascot, KP, his third tour in his third continent. Over the next few days, in true Penguin tradition, others began arriving from as far afield as Scotland, England, Wales (Duncan, our closet Welshman from New Plymouth), New Zealand, and Australia. Additionally, flown in to provide much needed gas for the match, were five young Ugandans: Jamil Nyango; Pius Ogena; Gamma Faisal; Allan Okello, and Joel Kimuli.
The first yahoo was at a local hostelry, named Carwash, where the initial contingent quaffed ale in the company of their Rwandan hosts, and indulged in a bountiful BBQ, including a first encounter with two Rwandan staples - potatoes and BBQ’d goat. The former was superb; the latter, mostly good jaw training! After at least a gallon apiece of refreshing beverages (with Marty and Gings already ahead after a fun stop in Jo’burg), and some large bellies filled, the bill came to $120, including tips, thus setting the tone for some welcome prices after the excesses of Australia last year.
The Captain’s Run on Thursday night was another fine affair, as the team assembled from around the Globe, fuelled by free food and beer from the hotel as an apology for a horrendous booking mix up. By the time the last King Penguin arrived -Coach McKitty at midnight - minus his luggage, the cat was truly out of the bag.
Friday morning saw the collation of all the kit we had brought for donation, which amounted to well in excess of 1500 items, including 150 coaching booklets/videos, 75 balls, 12 full sets of strips, 10 pumps (to prevent trips to garages!), and 8 first-aid kits. It was a fantastic effort by all concerned, making many people happy. The same morning, many of the tour party took the opportunity to visit the Genocide Memorial, which was an incredibly moving experience, and a timely reminder of the history of this magnificent country.
On Friday afternoon the King Penguins (KPs) split into two groups, the first going to the Rwanda Orphans' Project (www.rwandanorphansproject.org ). Our host at the orphanage was Kamanda, one of the Friends of Rwandan Rugby, (www.friendsofrwandanrugby.com) coaches. The KPs were blown away by the happiness of the children, and by the devotion of Sean and his staff, all of whom had answered the call to run the orphanage. The yells of joy as we handed out a set of Harlequins jerseys, and the fun during a line-out lifting routine, will stay with us for ever. It was great to see the opportunity being provided there, and the hope, and to witness the children’s love of the oval ball.
The second group went to St John Don Bosco School in Kigali to coach around 200 youths aged from 8 to 18 years. Some of these youngsters were complete beginners, whilst others possessed no little ability. The U16 and U18 groups in particular, looked to have some very talented young players. Four groups were split up by age, with Coach Harris taking the 12 years and under group, Coach McKittrick taking the U14s, Coach Brown the U16s, and Coach Patel the U18s. The sessions proved a great success and lasted several hours despite the 30°C heat. Plenty of water breaks were the order of the day – especially for the coaches! It is said, that as a coach, one is constantly learning, a maxim to which Coach McKittrick will surely subscribe! Even he, with his vast experience of coaching the highest levels of the game, was confronted in Kigali with a new and perplexing situation; one not covered in any coaching manual.
Having exhausted his repertoire of drills with his U14s, Coach McKittrick moved the session to the “divide into two teams for a game of touch” routine. After a bit of jostling and organising he was confronted by two equal teams of mixed attire, with no obvious pattern or similarity. As he delved the depths of his experience, and having quickly scanned the kids in front of him to confirm that all were shaven-headed young men, he came up with the normal solution, which is for one team to play in skins. Compliant and happy to the last, the U14s group duly whipped off their shirts only to draw a gasp from McKitty. His composure now absent, our confused coach managed a spluttering and stuttering rearrangement of his charges by instructing the (now) topless, shaven-headed girl to hastily don her shirt and join the “shirted” team. She duly complied, completely unfazed - although a little nonplussed! Crisis averted, and a new nickname was born for the remainder of the tour - Coach T. McKitty!
Upon the arrival of the group who visited the orphanage at St. John Don Bosco School, and in preparation for the test match the following day, the squad engaged in a very brief run out at dusk. The practise session was aimed at sorting out some line-outs, crafty back moves, and plays in certain field positions, whilst trying to conserve as much energy as possible. It was a half-hearted effort in truth, as fatigue had more than taken over by that point, and re-hydrating beers were long overdue. Eventually we returned to the hotel for a swim and tidy up, following which the KPs retired to an excellent local restaurant with their hosts. Suffice to say, an afternoon of exertion in the fierce sun, and the anticipation (some might say trepidation) of a big game the next afternoon, saw a pleasant but extremely quiet dinner taken, and an early night - well, with the exceptions of T. McKitty, who made up for lost time, and an injury-struck Uncle Buck.
To the delight of the KPs, dawn broke and the sun did not shine, since the prospect of a hard pitch and young, fast, Rwandans was already causing palpitations in a land where agoraphobia tablets are hard to come by
The match was held in the impressive 35,000 capacity Amahoro National Stadium, and the warm up was marked by the KPs appearing on the big screen, with a steward’s inquiry revealing, alas, that it was not a wide one.The serious stuff started with a short, sharp, team talk from Captain Tony “TP” Penn, reminding us of our duty to the jersey. In a fitting gesture, KP Wallace sung the Rwandan national anthem for our hosts. Camera man Uncle Buck shot some great video of the King Penguin team line up during the anthem. Five lung-bursting minutes later, to the delight/relief of several KPs, Rwanda opened the scoring.
Already it was clear that the big pitch suited the pacey Rwandans, and the KPs realised that a long, hard, afternoon was on the cards. However, the competitive spirit never dies, and the KPs answered the call. “We thought you guys would collapse after 20 minutes, but you were still fighting to the end, amazing”, was the comment from one of the opposition. There were some great efforts for the cause;a long chase back and last ditch tap tackle by Raeban being the pick of the bunch. Meanwhile, the oldie threesome of,in chronological order, Cockburn, Harris, and Wallace, may have felt they had clicked the wrong button on the SAGA Holiday website. Nevertheless, they put their bodies on the line. A couple of years at least, were shaved off Cobie’s knees replacement trajectory, while Wallace’s finger pointed in one direction, and Harris’s nose in the other. Fantastically, amidst all this, the King Penguins were buoyed up with 60 screaming supporters from the Orphanage cheering every Penguin move.
In a great game with a many a clash of styles, highlights to note include: the KPs' pack admiring the rapid support play of the Rwandans from afar, yet having their moment when stuffing it up for the jumper; Sam, Howard, JK , and the young Ugandans keeping the wheels on the bus - just, and our defence giving Browny plenty of practice in chasing kick-offs! Meanwhile, the rapier sharpness of the Rwandan backs was countered by the barrelling directness of TP and Gings. Yuill “call me Andy” Irvine, came on late for his third successive international appearance, taking his career games to four. With his amazing, Yuri Geller-inspired, hard-stares at the ball, he ensured that it bent away from him, safely into touch.
It was the oldies who finally took the lead 19-17, with two minutes to go, and it seemed that experience would triumph over youth, but the Rwandans fought back, and deservedly scored to triumph 22-19, thereby levelling the series. Scorers for the KPs were Sam Patel, Duncan Hughes, and David Harris, with two conversions by Joel Kimuli.
The scenes after the game were amazing: children from the orphanage flooded the pitch, and kit of all sorts was given away. An exhausted, but happy, group of KPs drank in a great experience.
After a wash up and rehydrate, the evening comprised an after match dinner, with all the right ingredients: food (including goat, no less), beer; boat races; speeches; presentations; a summary court for the departing Raeban (with charges for his heinous crime read in Rwandan byJudge Wallace), and a virtuoso display of Japanese by Cobie on his 61st Birthday. This was rugby fellowship at its finest. Next stop - the nightclub. Lunch-time the next day, the Rwandans declared themselves undefeated, long after the KPs had gone home for cocoa - well, apart from Marti, who ran them close!
Sunday dawned with some sore bodies as we broke camp at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, which had recovered strongly from a bad start and served us well. It should be noted at this point that the best phaff of the tour occurred in sorting out our bus. Imagine 16 KPs with luggage squeezing into a 12 seater minibus!!
The long bus journey to the mountains, the home of the gorillas, was tempered by a break at a small village where a wedding was going on and Cobie and Gings joined in the dancing, in their inimitable styles. The BBQ’s spuds at 15p were a huge success, and more BBQ’d goat was partaken. Here was saw what a lush, fertile and beautiful country the mountainous Rwanda is. Crop farming was a significant industry with fields upon fields of vegetables growing, even on the steep slopes.
A late arrival at our mountain lodge (Mountain View Lodge, Volcanoes National Park), it was food and bed for some. JK, however, chose this for his break out night, which was certainly evident the next morning when showing a clean pair of heels to a snail was beyond him. The excitement was growing as we set off at 5.30am to see the Silverbacks. Once there we were divided into two groups. Those on the Susa trail were rewarded with a six-hour hike (as if bit part players in the old Tarzan movies); some amazing gorilla footage; the rare sight of TP, “The Naki Bogan”, not taking up a challenge (his 210kg opponent was mighty), and getting a gorilla named after Cobie (who was clearly one in the previous life - some say early in this one). The second group took a short route and still saw the gorillas (top travel tip – the short route is the best!). Harris and Gings almost had a baby gorilla come up and join them, but a watchful Mum reached out her long arm and pulled the wee fella back when he was just a couple of inches away. The early group where back at the mountain lodge by 11:30am, whence they enjoyed a relaxing lunch, and then headed for Paradise Malahide, Gisenyi, on the shore of Lake Kuvi. Here they supped sundowners looking over the lake to the DR Congo, and watching the locals go about their business, for four hours.
Consequential to the diverging routes, there were some very tired, weary, and emotional KPs who gathered around the camp-fire at the lakeside for a last supper. But be not fooled! First, a short, sharp, court session to try yet more heinous crimes - presiding beak, Judge Wallace. The perpetrators? Howard, TP, Cobey and Buck. Gings, as chief prosecutor, handed out some fine punishments, and for a while several thought they had taken hallucinatory drugs as two Naki Bogans worked in tandem. Further charges were pressed against Harris, whose Japanese defence lawyer came up short, and T. McKitty for ... well, you know what for! This time it was Sam’s turn to be "Uncle Bucked", although breakfast by the lake, with locals singing as they brought in their catch, was a great restorer.
With a bus trip back to Dave Hughes’, our great host’s house, the tour ended with fond farewells as we all went our separate ways.
Whilst great fun was had by all, on and off the field, the KPs, in addition to their donations, also found time to give more help by:
1. Funding studs for the National Team; first aid kits; a bag to carry supplementary gear, and one year of essential injury cover for the National Team.
2.Paying for the orphanage youngsters to have a day out supporting us at the National Stadium. A fantastic experience was had by all, and resulted in a delightful note from Sean at the Orphanage.
3.Raising money for an injured National Team player - funding his healthcare for three years. Also, T. McKitty pledged to discover whether his New Zealand contact might be able to arrange for the player's treatment in NZ. His flight to and from NZ will be funded by several King Penguins, if T. McKitty is successful. We hope any treatment will allow him to return to work, and support his family, eventually.
Keith Wallace also toured on behalf of the Penguins International Rugby Football Trust (PIRFT), The Friends of Rwandan Rugby, and Inspire Worldwide (http://inspire-worldwide.com). Together, these fund a full-time CEO for Rwandan Rugby (for three years), and the construction of a clubhouse and pitch as a home for Rwandan Rugby. We are pleased to report excellent progress with the appointment as CEO, of Djuma, Rwandan Captain in Hong Kong, and one of our hosts on the tour. Meanwhile, the identification of an area of land with a planning application are due shortly. We will be seeking eight teams in 2016 to visit Rwanda and help build the Clubhouse. All Penguins are welcome to come forward.
As King Penguins, it is fantastic to be at a stage of our lives when we can put something back into our great game. The pleasure, clearly, is in the giving.
A big thanks to Messrs Brown and Harris on the organisational front; to all KPs for their contributions; to our hosts at the Rwanda Rugby federation, especially Djuma and Kamanda as our tour guides; to David Hughes for setting up the fixture and also being a great host, and to Rwanda for such a great welcome. This is a country of great beauty with a hope and a unity of purpose from which we can all learn. Until next time…