If you read the heading to this story, you will be forgiven if you assumed we were writing about African Sevens powerhouses South Africa and Kenya. However, this time around we would like to sing the praises of another country further north.
The Silverbacks is a rugby team from Rwanda who played in yesterday’s Hong Kong Rugby Fest.
The team, playing outside East Africa for the first time, reached the Plate final at the inProjects Kowloon RugbyFest, impressing spectators with their pace and silky ball skills.
Rugby greats Bob Skinstad and John Bentley sang the praises of Rwanda’s pioneering team after their impressive debut in Hong Kong yesterday (Wednesday 24 March).
Skinstad, a member of South Africa’s 2007 Rugby World Cup-winning squad and co-founder of the Cape Town Tens, said he was a huge fan.
“It’s a fantastic story how the Rwandans came to be playing here, I love it,” he said. “I was astounded by their pace and skill levels, they have obviously taken to rugby in a big way.” We’ve all seen what the Kenyans have achieved at sevens and there is a similar potential with these guys.
“If the games here had been longer they would have won every one because they certainly had the pace and fitness. The technical side of the game is obviously something they can learn.
“We’d love to see them at the Cape Town Tens, they’ve got an open invitation and we’d waive the entrance fee if they could get themselves down there.”
Former England and Lions winger Bentley was similarly appreciative.
“The Rwandans have been fantastic. Their core skills were excellent, they were very comfortable with the ball in hand and they were quick,” he said.
“They still need to work on the technical side, at the rucks and mauls, but that is to be expected. The way they have performed over the course of the day has been very impressive.”
The Silverbacks – named after Rwanda’s signature mountain gorillas – certainly made their mark at RugbyFest, a 10-a-side tournament at King’s Park featuring 14 teams from around the world.
They won four of their six games in Pool One, only losing narrowly in the other two, to finish second in the standings.
That put them through to the Plate final where, despite dominating possession, they went down 7-0 to the ARC All-Stars, a mixture of players from Hong Kong, New Zealand and South Africa.
Silverbacks player-coach Gerald Nsenga was happy despite the defeat. “It’s been a great day for us,” he said.
“Of course, anytime you lose a final you are disappointed but overall I’m very happy for the boys. We’ve come to Hong Kong for the first time and got all the way to the Plate final and not many teams can say that.
“We had a lot of possession in the final but unfortunately we couldn’t score and we threw it away in the last couple of minutes.
“But it’s been an invaluable experience for us. When we first got here we saw that a lot of the other teams were bigger than us and the boys were a little bit nervous. But we’re fit and we’re determined and we’ve discovered that we can compete and win against these guys.
“We’ve also met a lot of great people here in Hong Kong, we’ve received some top-level coaching and so many people have helped us.
It’s been a wonderful rugby experience and a fantastic travel experience and will be hugely beneficial to Rwandan rugby moving forward.
“Now we’re looking forward to watching the Hong Kong Sevens – we’re going to have some fun!”
Hong Kong-born rugby enthusiast and Rwanda volunteer worker Dave Hughes, who has organised the Silverbacks’ tour, thanked tournament officials.
“We’re very grateful to Kowloon RFC, the hosts of RugbyFest, and their chairman Anson Bailey for inviting us and making us so welcome,” he said. “They were also extremely helpful in sourcing sponsorship for us.”
Companies backing the Rwandan team’s trip include Silver Heritage, KPMG, Blank Rome and G4S.
The squad have been given a free minibus for their entire visit courtesy of Woodland Pre-Schools and at RugbyFest they played in a pristine new strip designed and produced at minimal cost by Tsunami Sport.
The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union helped with logistics and has waived the cost of the team’s Sevens tickets.
In addition, HKRFU director of development Ruth Mitchell has organised a huge collection of second-hand kit and boots for the players to take back to Rwanda.