Coach Aaron Meadows (left) trains the Jakarta Komodos in Bogor, West Java. Photo: Jefri Tarigan Coach Stepher Barber (in pink) guides the Jakarta Komodos during a training session. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

Herlina Bangun says: “In rugby, you use your legs, your hands, your mind and your eyes. You have to focus”. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

Universitas Negeri Jakarta rugby team during a training session before their match at Jagorawi Golf and Country club. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

The Jakarta Komodos before their match against the Universitas Negeri Jakarta. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

Jakarta: It’s an incongruous sight: a group of petite Indonesian women crouched in a rugby scrum.

The coaches of the Jakarta Komodos – Australian expats Aaron Meadows and Stephen Barber – are bellowing from the sidelines: “Run like the plague”, “get lower” and “go to ground”.

Most of the women in the team are from Mama Sayang Orphanage at Jonggol, south of Jakarta. Barber met some of them on Christmas Eve 2012, when they were singing carols at Aphrodite, a sports bar in South Jakarta.

Mama Sayang’s co-founder, Michael Hilliard, had approached Barber about activities for the girls at the orphanage; the boys, he said, had plenty of sporting opportunities but the girls were feeling left out. The last thing on his mind was rugby. But Barber – one of seven men who had a vision to include Indonesians in the game – offered to coach them. “I had reservations about the rough and tumble, I thought they may not like it,” Hilliard recalls. “But they took to it very well.”

Rugby was first introduced to Indonesia during the Dutch colonial era and was played by expats in the early 1900s until the outbreak of World War II. The game was resurrected in the early 1970s and by the mid-1980s there were four clubs, including one that reportedly played its home games on a US Navy ship. But the sport remained exclusively for expats, bar one year when an Indonesian drinks waiter from the ISCI Rugby Club toured to Hong Kong.

In May 2004 the sport was reinvigorated by Barber, or “Barbs” as everyone calls him, a geologist from Queensland, and the six others (three Australians, an Indonesian, a Briton and a New Zealander) who co-founded the Indonesian Rugby Football Union.

“I have been on a journey for the last 12 years. I have seen it all,” Barber says. “You only have to see [women’s rugby] – we started with just a small group of ladies three years ago and suddenly you have got eight clubs.”

Barber believes the inclusion of rugby sevens in this year’s Rio Olympics in Brazil is the “perfect tonic” the game needs to attract global appeal.

“Twelve years ago we would speak to Indonesian authorities and they would say: ‘What’s rugby?’ Now it’s an Olympic sport.”

Although the game is still minor in Indonesia – there are about 1000 adults, children and veterans players nationwide – Barber believes more people will play post-Olympics.

Herlina Bangun had never heard of rugby when she was a caroller at the Aphrodite. “My friends say: ‘Is that a fighting game’? I say: ‘No, it’s a sport’.”

Now a university student, Herlina is studying psychology and playing rugby. “When you play rugby, it’s not like a football, where you use your legs. In rugby, you use your legs, your hands, your mind and your eyes. You have to focus.”

Last month three of the players from Mama Sayang Orphanage were selected in the national women’s sevens rugby side to tour Singapore.

It’s a huge coup for the Jakarta Komodos, but Hilliard says the impact of rugby is felt in other ways too. “After they had been playing for some time, they learned how to function as a team. I could see the spillover effect. They were helping each other more and more interested in what others were doing. I think it is to do with the team spirit of rugby.”

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