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Rugby becomes local success story

May 31, 2012


With the help of two charity organizations, an Irish expatriate has enriched the lives of 700 underprivileged children by introducing them to rugby.

While still unfamiliar to many Mexicans, the sport has ballooned in Jalisco in recent years, with many exciting developments taking place or in the works.

The idea of coaching rugby to disadvantaged kids first came to John Tobin at a Mexpat event in the Camino Real last year. There he met a member of the Rafa Marquez Foundation, a charity set up by Rafael Marquez, the former Barcelona soccer star who began his career at local club Atlas.

“The foundation is always looking for volunteers to teach the benefits of sport, education and good nutrition,” says Tobin, 38, from Galway, Ireland. He learned that night that “they feed 700 kids per day in two schools, and that they also teach football to the kids.”

Together with the Mexican Rugby Federation and the Jalisco State Rugby Association, he made a presentation to the foundation, offering to teach the children rugby.

“We demonstrated how rugby, apart from being a fun sport, has its own culture which teaches the values of teamwork, leadership and respect for authority and your competition,” says Tobin, explaining that “in rugby only the captain of the team can talk to the referee. This rule is always respected.

“Given that it was not soccer-related I was surprised to see how positively, with open arms and huge enthusiasm, they received us, and invited us out to give a couple of rugby sessions to their kids,” Tobin adds.

He led two sessions with local rugby enthusiasts in the winter. They taught the children tag rugby, a less physical version in which players grab their opponents’ velcro flags instead of tackling them.

Then, last month, four English coaches from the Tag Rugby Trust came to Guadalajara for one week to teach the 700 children, 30 of whom suffer from Down syndrome. The Trust is a rugby-based charity formed in 2002, which seeks to improve the lives of children in some of the poorest regions of the world.

“Having the Tag Rugby Trust over gives a focus and a special impulse to us people locally on the ground to keep pushing it,” says Tobin. “Hopefully some day we can take a back seat and the kids will form their own rugby club.”

Among those who came to teach the kids was the captain of the England women’s rugby team.

“The week was a huge success,” says Tobin. “Having such a caliber as the England women’s rugby captain here for a week was amazing. There are clubs that would pay a lot of money for that type of assistance. It was great for the girls who were learning.”

The coordination between the Rafa Marquez Foundation and the Tag Rugby Trust would not have been possible without the dedication of organizer Doug Galloway, a Scotsman who runs La Mata Tinta restaurant in Tlaquepaque. Galloway put the English coaches up in his house for the week, and attended the sessions everyday, despite being on crutches with two broken ankles.

Tobin is very enthusiastic about how rugby has taken off in Jalisco and he has personally played a big role in promoting the sport. He first moved to Guadalajara to work as an engineer 10 years ago and it was then that he helped found the city’s first rugby team.

“It was difficult in the early years spreading the word that we had started Rhinos Rugby Club in Guadalajara,” he admits, but now “the Mexicans love the sport, its physicality and its comradeship. The Rhinos Rugby club has some very big lads here that would be well capable of holding their own in Europe.”

Tobin has played for the Rhinos, as well as Taiwan’s Taipei Baboons and his school, club and university in Ireland. Although no longer involved on a day-to-day basis, he remains vice-president of the Rhinos and still “keeps an eye on things” to make sure everything is running smoothly.

Over the past decade rugby has enjoyed a massive boom in popularity and there are now more than 20 teams in the metropolitan area. The Rhinos field two teams, with over 60 people playing regularly last year. At first Mexicans made up only 10 percent of the team, but now there are only one or two foreign players.

The rugby community is greatly appreciative of the support provided by the Jalisco Sports Commission (CODE). Jalisco is the only state in Mexico with a State Rugby Association and Tobin says it is home to the country’s biggest rugby scene by far.

“We could easily have over 5,000 people playing rugby in Jalisco in 10 years time. As I know, no other state in Mexico is growing like this. Come to think of it possibly no other state or country in the world is growing like this!” he says.

Guadalajara’s major universities all have teams, including the Tec de Monterrey, University of Guadalajara and ITESO, which also has a rugby summer camp planned for 300 students and children of staff.

The Harvard University women’s team, then U.S. University Champions, even came to play ITESO last year. The game boosted the popularity of women’s rugby here and helped establish a connection between the two universities.

Last year’s Pan American Games also left a positive legacy in the form of the Estadio Tlaquepaque, now home to the Rhinos, who play there on Saturdays from August to April.

With the regular season now over, a rugby sevens tournament featuring teams from the United States, France and Mexico takes place in June, with the final to be played in the Estadio Tlaquepaque on Saturday, June 30.

Regarding his work with the Rafa Marquez Foundation and the Tag Rugby Trust, Tobin acknowledges that without Mexpat “this would not have happened.”

Mexpat brings together expatriates from many countries each month to network and get acquainted with new and old friends. The next Mexpat meeting take places at the Hotel Riu at Lopez Mateos 830, corner of Niños Heroes, on Thursday, May 31, from 7-11 p.m.

Anyone in the lakeside area interested in volunteering to set up a tag rugby team or coach on Saturday mornings can contact the Reporter at
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