Rugby milestone for women in Egypt
By Passant Rabie
From Egypt Today
Rugby is on the rise in Egypt with the African nation having formed its first ever national side to take up an invitation to play at the North West Africa Women's Rugby Sevens tournament in Ghana back in June.
The sport was introduced in the country by British troops during the occupation, and after the last of the soldiers left in the 1950s, rugby was mostly played by expatriates in search of a little reminder of home.
The Cairo Rugby Club (CRC) was formed in 1980 as a sports and social club, and now fields men's, women's and youth teams. Alexandria's expatriate community founded its own rugby club and men's team in 2003, adding a women's team this year and letting them train with the men. Both clubs regularly participate in overseas tournaments, including the Dubai Sevens, Syrian Sevens and Beirut Tens.
The rugby clubs have always been open to all comers, but they had been popular mainly with foreigners. Over the years, however, Egyptian men and women have taken a liking to the sport, turning to the private clubs for their chance on the pitch.
Men have had their choice of three separate teams: Cairo Rugby, Alexandria Caesars and Alexandria Gladiators, the latter two both being part of Alexandria Rugby Club (ARC).
While CRC and ARC have women's teams, there are far fewer female players, most of them foreigners who transfer out of the country after a few years. More options opened for women last year when the American University in Cairo (AUC) formed its own student-run women's rugby team.
In October 2008, members of CRC founded the Egyptian Rugby Football Union (ERFU) to promote the sport locally. Their first order of business was to form a women's national team. The first ever women's rugby tournament in North Africa was being held the following June, and Egypt had been invited to participate.
Realising a goal
Elizabeth Uprichard and Laura Cook, both from the United Kingdom and currently working as teachers at Maadi British International School and Al-Alson School respectively, had been playing with Cairo Rugby for three years when the EFRU approached them about starting a women's national team.
"They had struggled to get a women's team for a while," explained Cook, who admitted only a few women were showing up for practice at CRC. However, after learning about the women's teams at AUC and Alexandria, the EFRU announced that they were holding try-outs in May.
Between 30 and 40 women attending the trial with three players from Cairo and seven from Alexandria selected for the Ghana tournament, although Uprichard admitted they had "put the team together very quickly, more quickly than I would have wanted."
With the players selected, Egypt's first national side only had three weeks to train and with players scattered across Cairo and Alexandria they only managed to get together as a team three times before the tournament.
"We didn't have time to train. We were trying to figure out the positions and the different skills they all had, but we didn't even have time to get them into shape," added coach Uprichard.
"It was really tough for them to go into the tournament and play against teams that have been playing for years. These were experienced teams, so Egypt's team did really well considering the circumstances. It was a great opportunity for the players to experience playing in a tournament, and to watch other women's teams."
The tournament, won by Tunisia, included women's teams from Morocco, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso, Egypt and the hosts Ghana. Egypt, understandably given their lack of preparation time, came in last, although for coaches and players alike there were plenty of positives to take home.
"The tournament was successful in many ways. In terms of points and games, then we didn't win any games, but it was successful in terms of experience," said Uprichard. "Being able to play full-contact rugby, to experience playing with women from all across the region, it's a valuable opportunity."
Ragia Mostafa added: "We were very excited at first and then we discovered that we had a long way to go in terms of the game and developing our skills, seeing as how we lost miserably."
Cook, coaching the team alongside Uprichard, added: "In every game they played in Ghana, they showed signs of improvement. They got to know each other as a team, and they gained more confidence as the tournament went on."
Perhaps more challenging than playing in their first international tournament was the initial reaction at home with perceptions that rugby is not "a very feminine sport or a sport that many women actually take part in, in a country like Egypt" admitted Uprichard.
However, that is something she believes can be changed, particularly with the passion of players like Mostafa, who admitted that when she first started playing "people would call me crazy for playing rugby, but I never cared what they said … I fell in love with the game."
Aside from the misconceptions about the sport, the team also faced issues when it came to getting permission for the women to travel without their families. "There were a lot of girls at the tryouts but our selection [pool] got smaller and smaller because of the family restrictions," explained Uprichard. "Some families wouldn't let their girls travel because of the swine flu, while others wouldn't let them travel because they'd be travelling without a chaperone."
Despite the obstacles, both coaches are united in the belief that all the girls they met at tryouts were dedicated to the sport, which gives them hope for the future of the game in Egypt.
"It's a great team sport to play," said Cook. "In Cairo, you're quite restricted with the amount of sports you can play so it's nice to go outside, work on your fitness and develop a lot of different skills."
Since the tournament in June, the women have not been training due to the summer break and Ramadan. After Eid the club teams will resume their training in Cairo, Alexandria and at AUC.
The next goal, Cook says, is to better establish the three separate [club] teams so they can compete against each other in Egypt. The club teams will be the best feeders for the national women's team, which will be holding more tryouts to build up the squad and start training together for future tournaments.
The Egyptian women's team are willing to compete and, finances permitting, hope to play in another tournament in Tunisia in November.
Adapted from an article which appears in the latest edition of Egypt Today.