A Ruffian’s Game Played by Gentlemen: Rugby as a Means of Promoting Social Reintegration for Youngsters in Conflict with the Law
by Jeff Morski for UNICEF Georgia,
Lasha is telling us a story with words that up until only recently he never thought he would hear himself saying or, moreover, believing.
“I had no hope. I thought no one would want me. Nobody needs such a person,” he says, the smile on his face and the enthusiasm in his voice belying the back-story of his nearly four years in a juvenile detention centre and his recent release.
“But then visitors started to come. They were rugby players. They wanted to spend time with us and teach us about the sport. I knew, then, that my concerns about the future were over.”
Lasha, now 18, was one of the 150 inmates of Tbilisi’s Avchala Special Education Establishment for Juveniles with convictions and one of the 30-or-so boys who became actively and directly involved in a new sport and healthy lifestyle program which, he says, changed his life.
The Georgian Rugby Union partnered with UNICEF to design and implement an outreach and education initiative using rugby and the core values it comprises and imparts as a way to positively influence the boys and redirect their interests and behaviours.
“Rugby is considered to be a unique kind of sport,” explains Nodar Andguladze, a Development Officer at the Georgian Rugby Union, former Georgian national rugby team player himself and, alongside his colleagues from the local and international rugby communities, a driving force behind this project. “It has a distinguished culture and a high moral code which is firmly engrained in the players as well as the supporters. Teamwork, respect for opponents and positive attitudes to failures are essential. All rugby players are like one family,” he adds, “and if you become friends, you are friends for life.”
Despite its fast and often violent physical pace requiring a great deal of strength, stamina and endurance, it is precisely the unwritten code of the so-called ‘ruffian’s game played by gentlemen’ and its core values that makes the sport of rugby an ideal medium for re-socialisation, education and reconciliation.
“For UNICEF, sport is seen as a natural but yet untapped part of the development of children and young people,” says David Gvineria, UNICEF Child Protection Officer. “Through this initiative, youngsters rebuild their self-confidence and learn how to channel their energy into a positive and enriching experience.”
The project began active work in April 2011 and currently continues within its format of twice-weekly two-hour-each rugby lessons on the pitch and in the classroom together with discussions on health, personal hygiene, grooming, and good nutrition, all of which combine to make a positive impact upon the boys. Role models, in the form of Rugby Union members as well as coaches and visiting players from local, national and international teams who take direct part on site through lessons, drills, lectures and friendly games, offer further inspiration and incentive to the boys.
“When they first started coming to see us, the coaches talked to us about rugby and explained what would happen and appointed days for trainings,” explains Lasha. “Apart from visits from our parents, these were the only people from the outside world that we had contact with on a regular basis. Some of the inmates were so closed off, they kept to themselves and were morally so down. But when rugby was introduced, we were all encouraged to take part. And most of us did. We got so close, we became active, many of us quit our smoking habits and we all looked forward to getting out and continuing to play rugby. We got closer to the outside world. The coaches did everything to encourage us, to make us happier, to talk to us and show us that there was hope for the future. Thanks to rugby.”
“It’s a massive problem when these juveniles are locked up,” says Giorgi Nizharadze, President of the Georgian Rugby Union, “but there’s an even bigger problem when they are released. They’re in a high risk group and 90 per cent of those released reoffend and return to this life here [at the prison]. Our aim is to teach them all about the different aspects of rugby so once they are released, the boys will integrate more easily back into society. Hopefully, too, the local sporting clubs will pick them up, look after them and continue what we have been teaching them.”
For Lasha, there is a bright future in front of him now.
Since his release, he has been picked up by the Georgian Youth Rugby Club Lelo. Two of his friends at Avchala will join the club in Kutaisi from September and they have plans to continue to be jointly involved in the sport.
“In those first days when we started playing rugby, I thought it would be just for fun,” says Lasha, “but it quickly grew into something very different. The coaches created an atmosphere of family, friendship, love and loyalty and we saw all kinds of support. They have shown us that everything is possible. I’m 18 now. My goal is to play rugby until I am in my older years. I dream of becoming a professional player and I will do my best to try and achieve this out of respect for all that I have been given and to pay everyone back for what they have done for me. For all of us. Rugby has shown me everything.”