A rugby-mad Welsh teacher has been credited for sparking an explosion of interest in the sport in Rwanda which led to the country’s first-ever World Cup qualifier.
Mary Watkins, 55, runs a charity which offers coaching and kit to children and young adults in 100 schools and communities across the African nation who have since gone on to represent its senior men’s team.
Mrs Watkins was awarded a British Empire Medal in the New Year’s Honours list in January for services to international development after starting up Friends of Rwandan Rugby back in 2014.
The mother of two said Rwanda’s newfound love of rugby was now “helping bring communities together” in a country that was scarred by genocide in 1994 during a civil war.
The charity, based in Newport, South Wales, was launched by Mrs Watkins and her husband Glyn Watkins after the trained teachers volunteered at a school in western Rwanda and ended up coaching 200 pupils how to play rugby.
Mrs Watkins said: “We’d been invited to dinner with the principal and when the conversation came on to sport, he decided Wales was not very good at football, but could we help coach rugby to kids.
“Being Welsh was the only coaching qualification badge Glyn needed to get the job. I remember how bewildered he looked when 200 pupils turned up and he only had one ball.
“Word of rugby quickly spread and before we knew it people were crossing the nearby border from Congo to play.
“I think we were responsible for the first ever Rwanda v Congo international, although the Congo players all had to disappear at 5.30pm and make a 20-minute run before the border closed at six o’clock.”
Since then, Rwandan rugby has gone from strength to strength, with the men’s national side – nicknamed the Silverbacks after the country’s famous gorillas – making history by playing their first World Cup qualifier in 2019.
The game against the Ivory Coast was made even more special for Mrs Watkins and her husband as the Rwandan team included two of their rugby development officers while most of the players had received coaching from the charity.
“Even though the Silverbacks lost 60-3, the game sparked so much interest. We’d love to find a high-profile Welsh player to go out to Rwanda as an ambassador for our charity to build on this,” Mrs Watkins said.
She added the love of rugby had translated into love for Wales, with around 50 teams in Rwanda now playing in donated club kit donated by Welsh sides, and said her “dream” would be to see Wales playing Rwanda at a World Cup.
Rwandan international wing Donatien Ufitimfura formed his own team, Rusizi Resilience RFC, after being introduced to the game by the Watkins’ in 2014.
It became the eighth side to join the national league and led to Rwanda’s official recognition by World Rugby.
He said: “I was always very angry before I started playing rugby, but now I’m always happy because of it.
“I have grown up as an orphan in poor conditions. I never saw my father. I didn’t know what rugby was, but I think it was what I was meant to play. It is bringing people together again.”
The Watkins’ volunteer work was made possible through the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) charity, funded by the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “I congratulate Mary on receiving her honour and wish to thank her for her valuable work in Rwanda through VSO and her rugby charity. UK aid has helped lift almost two million people out of poverty since 2005.
“The UK Government is proud to support volunteers from every corner of the UK make a difference in combating poverty around the world.”