‘Our Men In Havana’: Warringah Rats humanitarian tour of Cuba

Photo: Karen Watson

*********************

It may not have been quite the culture shock of Kenya back in 2011, but Warringah’s recent humanitarian rugby tour to Cuba was still an eye opener, and an experience that will live long in the memory for the 22-strong touring party. The two games that their eleven day visit was wrapped around were keenly contested, enjoyed by all, and proved to be a big hit amongst the local baseball loving onlookers. But as with Kenya, it was events off the field that were the real focus and the true legacy of the trip for those involved.

Rats players Glenn Pritchard and Tristan Stanley were both veterans of the visit to the slums of Nairobi two years ago, and despite encountering and facing up to the horrors they witnessed in Kibera, they admit that this trip into communist Cuba was still a hesitant journey into the unknown. However, it proved to be a refreshing experience on all levels.

Cuba was the complete unknown for everyone in the touring party,” admits Tristan. “Which was great because the place really did blow us away. We were learning about their history and their way of life on the go. It was a completely different trip to Kenya, for all the right reasons.”

“It was better than I’d expected because everyone you meet seems like they’re on a similar level across the country,” concurs Glen. “In Kenya the slums were a real eye opener, I don’t think you could get any worse living conditions. But while we didn’t see conditions as bad as that, you can definitely sense that the Cuban people are quite desperate, and that they’re doing it very tough.”

It was both player’s first encounter of life under a communist regime as well. And while a few stereotypical observations about Cuba held true, they were able to dispel some of the myths that envelope a country viewed with much suspicion from afar.

“The biggest thing that stood out was the complete lack of maintenance to their buildings,” observes Tristan. “A lot of places were crumbling or falling apart. There were no public toilets, which I’ll leave to your imagination, and the amount of respect or fear any Cuban national had for their police force was evident. However, it was generally very safe, there are no gangs, no guns and we saw no violence. I had fears it would be terribly dangerous, so I was quite surprised.”

WRC Cuba Tour 2013

The Rats pose for a photo with a touring Spanish soccer team in front of the infamous ‘Mural de la Prehistoria’, commissioned by Fidel Castro in 1961 – Photo: Karen Watson

I’m guessing that being a large group of twenty-something males averaging over 6ft in height and around a hundred kilos in weight, probably aided their safe passage. But as Glenn reveals, the locals certainly weren’t shy in approaching their curious visitors.

“They were really friendly, and if we were walking down the street we definitely got a bit of attention. A lot of people assumed that we were American or Canadian, and when you say ‘Australian’, they were a bit surprised because it’s so far away and they don’t get many Aussies over there.”

Far away indeed, and made that bit farther by the trade and travel embargo placed on the country, which meant the Rats could only enter Cuba via Vancouver in Canada. Departing Sydney on January 24th they endured 23hrs in the air plus 10hrs of transit en route, and in addition to their own luggage, they also travelled with 900kgs of donated items, which they were to distribute amongst the local orphanages, community centres and major charity partners – Oxfam Cuba and Royal 70.

When they eventually arrived at 11pm at their hotel in the capital Havana, dinner had long since been served. So they were taken to the home of one of the hotel workers to enjoy a traditional home cooked meal instead. It was a symbol of the hospitality that the Cubans would show their guests throughout the trip, and a generosity of spirit that the Rats made sure was reciprocated with interest.

Although rugby is the conduit for Warringah’s club tours, it takes a firm backseat to the humanitarian side of their trip. And their efforts in bringing joy and happiness to those less fortunate then themselves – particularly children – is admirable.

They visited two orphanages whilst in Havana, the Circulo Alvarado and the Precencia Lenin, that care for children ranging from 2 to 18-years old. Most of these kids were ‘institutional orphans’, meaning both parents have been jailed for various crimes and they have no-one else to care for them.

Warringah Rats on Tour in Cuba_Montage 1_KW

Left: Ryan Trbojevich plays with an orphan at the Circulo Alvarado orphanage – Top Right: Hamish Finch and Ben Fields pose with a new friend – Bottom Right: Coaching at the Rugby Clinic – Photos: Karen Watson

Handing out a variety of items including clothing, toys, stationery, herbs and spices, sports equipment and even surf boards, the Rats happily joined in with the kids’ games. Looking at the photos from the trip, it’s easy to understand why these were the moments that will never be forgotten.

“I think going to the orphanages and being able to donate toys and clothes to the kids and seeing how happy they were, those sort of things leave the biggest impression,” says Glenn.

“They definitely make you realise that we’ve got it pretty easy here in comparison to some of the conditions and challenges they face on a daily basis. The smiles that you get just from giving something that we take for granted, like books and balls, it means the world to them.”

The team also hosted a Rugby Clinic for around 60 underprivileged children – boys and girls – where they ran through some basic drills and game play before handing out tee-shirts, Wallaby stickers and rugby balls.

Rugby is very much a minority sport in Cuba. The parks and open spaces are generally filled with wannabe baseballer’s – the national sport of choice – all dreaming of life in the Major League, and there’s a healthy amount of soccer players too. But with baseball being dropped as an Olympic sport, and Sevens rugby now on the schedule for Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Cuba is one of many countries in the world now realising the possibilities for success that the sport could bring.

There is currently no official financial backing for rugby from the Cuban government, and the game is often played without goalposts or line markings, and on fields in poor condition. For Tristan Stanley, more used to the (mostly!) lush green turf of the Shute Shield and the unseen work of a myriad of volunteers, the sight of the opposition team marking out lines with chalk and erecting uprights before their first game, was a sobering reminder of the paucity of facilities available to their hosts.

Cuban Rugby Facts

Cuban Rugby Facts

“I had never seen that before,” he recalls. “It showed me how raw the game can be when it’s stripped back, and it really hit home how lucky we are in our situation. There are no set rugby fields over there, our field was a soccer field with uprights for goal posts tied to them with electrical wire, and they don’t have the equipment to train with either. For example, there were only three rugby balls in one entire province – that’s like sharing three balls between the Rats, Marlins, Gordon and Norths!”

Understandably, that lack of resources is a significant hindrance in terms of improvement, and left the Cuban boys some way short of the Rats when it came to game time. But the effort and desire from their eager hosts was there for all to see. As a result the Rats came away triumphant, but respectful.

“They were some big boys!” noted Glenn. “They loved the physical aspect of rugby, and some parts of their game were quite good. Their one-on-one tackles were pretty much as good as anyone here in Australia. But they were lacking in experience, and some of their tactics were a little bit off and that’s where we got over them. They’ve certainly got some core skills, which could make them quite successful at rugby if the game becomes more popular and they can get some funding.”

For the record, the Rats racked up comfortable wins over provincial champions Havana (48-5), and then over a National Cuban Selection team (57-20) a week later, in front of a crowd of around 2000 people – the biggest turnout for a match in the past five years. Watched by a number of senior Cuban sporting officials who are lobbying for government funding and support of the game, the matches also received coverage on both national radio and TV, with results and footage of both games being broadcast. The tour even got a special mention in the New York Times!

This kind of exposure is vital in assisting the growth of rugby in Cuba, and giving Cuban players the opportunity to play a team at the level of Warringah, only boosts the prospects and profile of the game as a whole.  The key objectives for the future growth of the sport are the development of lower leagues, the creation of academies, the development of the women’s game, the strengthening of provincial teams and participation in more international competitions, and perhaps most importantly – tapping into the nations’ youth.

Warringah Rats on Tour in Cuba_Montage 2_KW

Top Left: Jack Tomkins scores against the Cuban national side – Top Right: Posing with a couple of classic Cuban Oldsmobiles – Bottom Left: Toby Paten in salsa mode – Bottom Right: Phil Cook in action against Havana – Photos: Karen Watson

Cuba has introduced a schools rugby program for kids from 8 to 13-years old, where they currently use tag rugby to attract youngsters to the game. It’s proving effective, but it’s resources, materials and equipment that can make a difference. The donation by the Rats of over 200 balls and some pumps, as well as boots and kit including shirts, shorts and socks to both their opposition teams, was gratefully received. In addition, the Rats handed out over 200 tee-shirts to children and members of the Cuban women’s rugby team during the matches.

Once the footy was over, it was naturally time for the Aussies to educate their hosts on the finer points of post-match discussion over a cold one – but it wasn’t easy!

“To be honest, they weren’t actually sure what to do,” laughs Tristan. “So that was one of the things we took to them. We lined up before the game, shook hands, beat each other up on the field, and then took them to a restaurant around the corner and shared a meal, a beer, and named the best players. They did try very hard to impress us, but I think behind the scenes they were very worried about doing it all wrong.”

And when it came to the ultimate time honoured rugby tradition, something must have got lost in translation. “We tried to tee up a ‘boat race’,” explains Glenn. “But they would only have one beer and then they were straight onto the rum!”

Looking back on their amazing experiences now, both players are grateful to have had what they see as the opportunity of a lifetime, and to the game of rugby for providing it. “Without rugby,” Glen affirms, “there’s no way we’d have the opportunity to travel to Kenya and Cuba and these amazing places, and we wouldn’t be able to have these experiences.”

“The best part about touring with the Rats,” says Tristan, “is that we are going to countries that aren’t at the top of most clubs touring lists. We could do Europe, South Africa and New Zealand etc, but we’ve deliberately chosen countries that need help in areas of humanitarianism, and are undeveloped rugby nations. It was so rewarding to not only do what we did, but to go so far off the beaten track rugby-wise, and play such an undeveloped rugby nation such as Cuba.”

Planning has already started for 2015, so watch this space!

TOURING SQUAD: Ben Adams (1st Grade); Jack Basham (4th Grade); Pat Beck (3rd/4th Grade); Ben Bryant (3rd Grade); James Casey (1st Grade); Phil Cook (2nd Grade); Bruce Dando (2nd Grade); Ed Doyle (Club Captain, 1st Grade); David Feltscheer (Co-Captain, 1st Grade), Ben Field (4th Grade); Hamish Finch (4th Grade); Josh Gerrard (3rd Grade); Scott Hardiman (1st/2nd Grade in 2011 – injured 2012 season); Scott Kiely (3rd Grade); Toby Paten (3rd/4th Grade); Glenn Pritchard (1st Grade); Tom Sheridan (3rd Grade); Tristan Stanley (former 1st Grade – currently residing in WA); Jack Tomkins (1st Grade); Ryan Trbojevich (3rd Grade – also team logistics and liaison with Cuban rugby)

STAFF: Phillip Parsons (Tour Manager & Logistics), Karen Watson (Marketing/Media/Charity Liaison/Photography)

*********************

First published by Rugby News on April 8th, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s