1282: just south of the Oxford city wall Hart Hall is established, becoming Hertford College in 1874. Five thousand miles to the east Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, is opening up trade routes with Europe that will lead his great ambassador Rabban Bar Sauma as far as the court of Edward I in Gascony in 1288.
1963: the UK is among the first western nations to formally recognise diplomatic relations with Mongolia, becoming a major foreign investor in the country and enhancing Mongolia’s prestige in the international community.
2013: on the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations and almost three quarters of a millennium since an English King held court with an emissary of Kublai Khan, Hertford College Rugby Club become the first rugby team to officially tour Mongolia in partnership with the Mongolian Rugby Union. They are only the second foreign team ever to play in Mongolia (The Hong Kong Vandals visited in 2012).
Mongolia is not a nation that one would ostensibly associate with team sports. At the pinnacle of the Mongolian sporting calendar is the Naadam: a sporting festival that showcases the best of the ‘eriin gurvan naadam’ or ‘three manly games’: wrestling, archery, and horse racing. All three disciplines test the skill and strength of the individual, rather than the cohesiveness of a group. Mongolia has won 24 Olympic medals since Mexico 68, all of which came from just four individual disciplines: judo, boxing, shooting, and wrestling.
The individualism inherent in Mongolian sport can be seen to reflect its ancient yet ever-pervasive nomadic culture. However, in recent year’s more of the nomadic population have moved to the capital in search of greater prosperity. Many simply establish their ger, a Mongolian nomadic abode similar to a yurt, on the edge of the city and try to find work. It is estimated that 30-40% of the Mongolian population still maintain a nomadic lifestyle making a living from their livestock.
Since the Mongolian Rugby Football Union was established in 2003, rugby has become one of the fastest growing team sports in the country. The national team played their first ever international match against Kyrgyzstan is 2009 resulting in a respectable 38-21 defeat. At the very least we hoped that this trip would contribute in some way to the development of Mongolian rugby.
Some of the more assiduous members of the Hertford touring party had been well acquainted with such background information by a combination of guidebooks and Wikipedia. Others were seasoned veterans of rugby tours, well-versed in the idiosyncratic rules and expectations that govern such a trip. Yet as we walked between the sliding glass doors of Chinggis Khaan National Airport into the bright piercing air of Ulaanbaatar, none of us had any real idea of what to expect.
We had been in Ulaanbaatar for a couple of hours before the tour manager and I were invited to a press conference at the national TV centre. Expecting to be greeted with a couple of guys and a microphone I was slightly thrown off guard at the sight of a room full of journalists; about twenty television cameras; and a similar number of microphones bunched together on a long table. This press conference was going out live on national television.
One journalist asked the seemingly reductive yet perfectly reasonable and difficult question: ‘How good are Hertford College?’ After trying to explain the intricate workings of the ‘cuppers bowl’ competition; John, the team manager, skilfully pointed to the eight players that have gone on to represent England in Hertford’s history. The fact that most of these caps came at the end of the nineteenth century was trivial and hardly worth mentioning.
Rather taken aback at the extent of interest in our presence I asked Austin, the MRFU president, if rugby always gets this much attention in Mongolia? ‘It can if we want it to’ was his laconic response. Indeed the spotlight would remain on us for the duration of our stay: We were to play two matches with a sevens tournament in between, all of which would be played in the national stadium and broadcast live on Mongolian television. Besides our solitary Blue, this was a rather unique scenario for all involved.
After dumping our stuff in the hostel we headed out into the Gobi for a three night camping and training trip. The journey took six hours along a single road that cut unwaveringly straight into the Mongolian steppe. At 18 ½ players (sorry John) our touring party was small. After half an hour in the Gobi we were one player lighter – Marco our utility back row/prop/occasional winger had torn his hamstring in our first session of light touch rugby.
Undeterred we continued training in the most spectacular expanse of land. The vista was one of sharply lined impenetrable blocks of colour. Clear azure sky rested on yawning green steppe from which rose golden sand dunes to the south. Within this vastness the only impediments to our drills were herds of horses and goats insensibly strolling through our boundless arena. Happily the only further wounds suffered during our desert excursion came in the form of innumerable mosquito bites.
On our return to UB our training facilities had an altogether different feel. Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world with a landscape dominated by vast open grasslands, yet somewhat absurdly a significant obstacle for Mongolian rugby is lack of space. Their training ground is a baseball diamond behind Olympic house which is shared with a number of other groups. The only other alternative was to train on a rock hard astro-turf pitch belonging to one of the high schools. However, this lack of facilities is more than compensated by an extremely committed and resolute attitude. In winter the temperature can drop to -40 and Ulaanbaatar holds the honour of the coldest capital city in the world. Rugby training continues regardless.
The evening before the first match we had been invited to a reception at the British embassy for a gentle night of socialising. Several of the expat community were keen to deliver some insider knowledge on the team we would be facing. However, the diversity of their accounts was far from reassuring. One American suggested that the Mongolians were bulldozers who would aim run to straight through us comparatively diminutive Englishmen. By contrast another described their lack of size and reluctance to hit contact, hence a reliance on a skilful and agile backline. We decided that attempts to second guess the opposition were not going to be productive.
We arrived at the national stadium the next morning. The venue is multi-purpose, hosting the Naadam festival as well as athletics events and military showcases. Several bullet casings were removed from our 22 before kickoff.
The game was a close encounter. Our opponents were not the brutes that some led us to believe. What we faced were an extremely well drilled and skilled unit that liked to test the pace and defense of our back line rather than the strength of our forward pack. Hertford took a quick lead from a penalty kicked by Will Dace. A period of pressure from Defense followed, lead to the award of a penalty try. Defense added a further converted try to lead 14-3 at the break. Hertford hit back soon after through a quick tap penalty taken by Harry Horner, catching the opposition off guard. Will Dace added the conversion. Hertford looked far more settled and assured in the second half with Henry Hughes adding a further score within the final ten minutes taking the scored to 16-14. Hertford looked favourites for a first tour win. However, within the final five minutes Defense broke through on the left flank to record the winning points. The try was converted for a final score of 21-16 to Defense University. Henry Hughes was named Man of the match.
At the post match meal we socialised with our opponents and were amazed to find that some players had been training for over a year without playing a full competitive match. The old clichés are often the most appropriate and we found that our shared experience through sport overcame any language barriers. Mongolian opponents became friends as we discussed in broken English and hand gestures the moment when that prop made all those big tackles, or when that player made that break and scored that try. Our disappointment in being defeated soon gave way to a sense of satisfaction that we had been beaten by a skilful team that were gracious in victory.
After the long build up and intense release of the first game it seemed a sampling of Mongolian night life was appropriate. We were lead to ‘Brix club’ by some local friends. Dressed in scarlet tour blazers we weren’t the most subtle of revellers and several Mongolians recognised us as ‘that rugby team from England’. It seemed that some people were actually watching.
Our next sporting engagement was the sevens tournament, made up of ourselves and the four other club teams playing in a round robin format. After the first match our overriding opinion of Mongolian rugby players was that they were skilful, agile, and liked to ship the ball out wide. Naturally they were quite good at sevens. Any nerves we had were effectively exorcised by the first match so we played with much greater fluidity and composure coming second overall and losing only one match to the eventual winners. Sam Lipetz scored many tries whilst Harry Wetherald was named man of the tournament. Unfortunately, scrum half Alex Monk managed to tear his hamstring in the act of scoring a try and I was concussed by a rogue Mongolian knee. We would both be ruled out of the final match two days later. Miraculously, Marco would recover enough from his hamstring tear just over a week ago in the Gobi to play the entire match at Prop.
Between the sevens tournament and the final match we found time to visit the Lotus Children’s orphanage on the outskirts of UB. Set in extensive grounds, the children made the most of being able to play outside in the warm weather. For many of the team the visit was the highlight of the trip. The children were full of energy and had a wicked sense humour. We donated toys and games as well as playing an unconventional game of rugby together; some of the basic rugby skills on show putting a certain seafaring team member to shame.
With a day to go before the last game the murmurings of uncertainty that accompanied the first game started up again. Would they field members of the national team? Would they be a lot bigger? The Defense University team was made entirely of university students our own age. The Ulaanbaatar Warriors were a club team full of older, more experienced players.
The match was an evening kickoff played under floodlights in front of a much fuller crowd, among which sat the English ambassador and his family. Despite being relegated to the sidelines through injury I lead the team out and lined up for the Mongolian national anthem. The cameraman passed through our team giving the audience a brief profile of each player. Our hopes of singing ‘God Save the Queen’ were unfortunately unsubstantiated; although with a Norwegian/Somali national among our ranks it wasn’t strictly appropriate.
The UB warriors played a much more direct game than the university team, repeatedly testing our strength around the fringes. The opening twenty minutes were very physical and cagey. UB asserted their undoubted dominance in the scrum by lifting up our front row. However Hertford effectively pinned UB down with accurate kicks for territory. UB eventually broke the deadlock working an overlap on the right wing to score in the corner. However, Hertford struck back quickly: stand-in scrum half Will Dace broke the UB line with a characteristic dummy before feeding Henry Hughes on his shoulder to run in the try. Hertford led 7-5 and looked more than a match for the physically imposing Mongolians. However, just before half time our opponents took the lead through typically direct play; taking a quick penalty and powering through a momentary lapse in defense. The try was converted to give UB a 12-7 lead at half time.
Due to injuries, and our resistance to the many kind offers from members of the expatriate community to play for us, we only had one substitute. However having been hardened on the fields of college rugby where 15 players is considered a luxury, Hertford battled on against a team reinforced with substitutes in another tense and edgy forty minutes. Hertford threatened throughout yet the dominance of the UB forwards made it difficult to string many phases together and we couldn’t quite finish moves off from promising field positions. As resolute as UB were, our resistance was equally staunch. Ultimately no team made a breakthrough and the game ended in a well earned victory for UB 12-7. Harry Wetherald was named MOTM for us, whilst their number three was awarded Mongolian MOTM for his scrimmaging and dangerous play in the loose. Particular mention must go to the Hertford front row who faced two formidable Mongolian national wrestlers at 1 and 3, yet fought through a full eighty minutes.
Hertford had lost twice in two close encounters. We were exhausted, bruised, and disappointed. However for a rugby union that is trying to spread the appeal of the game to a wider audience the two tense and exciting matches that Hertford played a part in couldn’t have provided a better advert for this strange, new, and dynamic team game called Rugby.
At the post match meal that night we spread ourselves out among our Mongolian counterparts, chatting, drinking, and eating. They thanked us for coming and we thanked them for having us. Once again the disappointment of losing was tempered by the sense that we had been a part of something significant; something adventurous and a little bit strange that had never been done before.
The next morning we were to fly home. Undeterred we were led to ‘Brix’ club by Adam Munkhbayar, a Mongolian TV personality that happened to play 6 (sometimes 7) for the national team; who could do a mean Psy impression; and who happened to know the guy at Brix who could got us a private karaoke room in the back. Testament to the frankly surreal nature of the trip as a whole, we spent our last night drinking free beer and whiskey with a group of Mongolian rugby players singing Elton John and Shania Twain singles.
Hertford College Rugby Club will be vying for promotion to Oxford University Division four next term, as well as offering stiff defence of their Cuppers bowl crown. Plans for next year’s tour are already in the pipeline.