An Irishman’s Diary on Paul O’Connell and rugby in Rwanda

Hero of the Silverbacks

 Paul O’Connell – big in Rwanda. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Paul O’Connell – big in Rwanda. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters


One of the coaches had come in from Rwanda’s provinces for the match. Two teams of young women, their numbers slightly short on the day, were playing a game of rugby on a dry football pitch a ten-minute drive from the centre of the capital, Kigali.

The provincial coach told me about his start in rugby, years ago; how a young Englishwoman had got a bunch of young people to throw a ball around in a rural Rwandan town. She’s gone but they’re still playing, hundreds of underage players across the country now.

Rwanda sits nicely in the region for rugby – close to Kenya, a Sevens rugby powerhouse, and next door to Uganda, where there’s often a game on offer. But which world players did the coach admire, beyond the region?

“O’Connell of Ireland”, he said.

Travelling to Rwanda had brought me just beyond the equator. But here too, Paul O’Connell was “The Man”? The coach followed up by enumerating O’Connell’s rugby qualities. I told him I was from Limerick; I drew a map in the dirt of the dry pitch. He didn’t seem to know where Limerick was. No.

But he knew who Paul O’Connell was. Of course he did.

Few resources

Rugby, it seems, goes on quietly in Rwanda, with few resources (“Balls. More balls”, I was told, was all their sport needed).

Rwanda was commemorating the 1994 genocide when I passed through. The under-14s that were on the pitch weren’t around back then – they belong to this century – but the coaches were there, for the hundred-or-so days of brutal killing.

There were stories here no doubt. I knew before I arrived at the pitch that the coaches had them – tales of parents butchered; of homes lost and years spent in camps.

But I didn’t ask them about that. I asked them about the quiet work they were doing – teaching ball-handling, managing scrums, standing on sidelines.

The coach from the provinces told me he trains primary and secondary schoolchildren and thinks there may be 400 people playing in his district. He’s with a club himself – only injury had kept him from taking up a national selection.

The Silverbacks

More recent games have been against immediate neighbours Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but they have their eye on the continent’s bigger teams – Namibia, Kenya . . . South Africa. Rwanda’s strategy for getting to that level lies with the schools – with the young women’s team and the under-14s that I was watching.

A boy just off the pitch from an under-14s game of tag rugby told me it had been a good match, although he’d been hoping to score. When I asked Frank what he liked about the rugby business he replied, “Seeing my team-mate score a try and get us out of trouble”. I wondered if I’d been as generous at his age when I chased a rugby ball.

The boy’s game had been refereed by a second coach. He too had his reference to Irish rugby. Tommy Bowe had been to visit, “when he came with the cow”. With the cow?

Next generation

It’s not an isolated occurrence. Players from Europe and elsewhere do get over. The group that’s been developing the sport in towns and villages across Rwanda for the last decade (Friends of Rwandan Rugby) brings players over every year to help expand the game. They bring equipment, training or playing experience, and their time.

But only Tommy brings a cow. That’ll make him “Bó” for the Rwandans I thought, as the whistle went and the teams came off the pitch.