EPISODE #17

The 'ever-restless' Rugby coach: from North Wales to Shanghai

Tim Cunningham
  • Born and grew up in Llandudno
  • Shanghai, China
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I was born and grew up in north Wales and spent my first 18 years in and around Llandudno, attending Ysgol ‘John Bright’ for my A levels. I started playing rugby in primary school and just kept going. I represented my school and my county, trying out for the North Wales side to play South Wales in the Wales Schoolboy selection process.

"My life has jumped around to Portugal, the Middle East, Italy and, for a few years, back home to Wales."

After 3 years in Cardiff University playing rugby (I picked up a BSc in Biology on the way) and headed up to University College of North Wales in Bangor to do my teacher training. I played for my old club, Llandudno RFC, now and again but mostly I was out in the mountains and trying out my new-found sport of surfing.

I moved to Plymouth to be near the big waves of Cornwall back in 1984 and took a job teaching Biology in Plymouth College, a boys public school. I found that I was rather good at teaching and really enjoyed it. I also coached rugby to the boys’ U14s and U16s teams, and I found I was pretty good at that too! I trained with Plymouth Albion RFC, who were quite a good side in those days; I managed a few matches with them playing at Hooker for a couple of seasons. Following a surfing accident where I dislocated my shoulder out in huge Atlantic surf up in Newquay, I had to give up playing rugby. From then on, I was going to be content with being a coach!  

"I moved out to Athens, Greece to carry on my teaching career. This was back in 1991 and there really wasn’t a rugby scene there, so I started one."

For many reasons, but mostly to be a beach bum, I moved out to Athens, Greece to carry on my teaching career. This was back in 1991 and there really wasn’t a rugby scene there, so I started one. With an ex-team mate from Plymouth Albion who joined our school as Head of PE, we started throwing a ball around at school and on the beach and soon had a following.

From then on, my life has jumped around to Portugal, the Middle East,  Italy and, for a few years, back home to Wales. All the time, I coached rugby as part of my “community service”. Isn’t rugby just the best way to bring people together? Wherever I was, I noticed that just the simple act of carrying a ball around in public, and throwing it around among friends, would attract others who wanted to join in.

Ever restless, I took a job in Mozambique in 2013. Would I find a rugby club in deepest, darkest Africa? Well, not quite a club, but enough of the dads of the kids in my international school were ex-rugby players, so we could have a Friday after-school game of touch and a few beers. Mozambiquans didn’t quite understand the game, but from the expatriate community of South Africans, Zimbabweans, Namibians, Tanzanians and Kenyans, plus me the honorary Welshman, we threw the ball around and played proper Jungle Rugby.

"Isn’t rugby just the best way to bring people together? Wherever I was, I noticed that just the simple act of carrying a ball around in public, and throwing it around among friends, would attract others who wanted to join in."

And so my latest, and probably final, international posting is in China. I knew that Shanghai had a rich rugby history. Believe it or not, rugby was being played here in Shanghai in the late 1870s. The Shanghai Rugby Club was formed in 1881 and initially was formed of servicemen stationed here. They would play rugby teams from visiting ships and garrisons – mostly British to start with, but over the years they entertained French and American teams first, and then more and more international squads as the country ‘opened up’. The teams play 15-a-side and Sevens, although they specialize in the 10-a-side game which is immensely popular in Asia – from the Middle East to Japan.

So, where do I come in?  I joined in early 1016 and the men’s team already had a new coach. After co-coaching with him for a few weeks, we realized that we had enough young women coming to training to form a team. I took on the Shanghai Ladies Pink Dragons (a Tens team) and we won our first competition in Xiamen (the old port of Amoy in S.E. China) in October 2016. We can count over 30 in our squad and have representatives of over 20 nationalities including, of course, China. We regularly play Chinese teams, expatriate teams and visiting teams from overseas.  To get really good competition, we travel each year to the Kowloon 10s (the same week as the Hong Kong Sevens) and to the Philippines 10s in Cebu. We’ve got the silverware to prove it! It really is an exceptional club! This year, I’ve been joined by a school colleague to help out in the coaching. He’s also from a small green island, where there are more sheep than people, and where rugby is part of their DNA. I’m talking about New Zealand, of course. And rugby has brought us together to integrate into our community.

"Through the game, I’ve found out much more about the people and places that I’ve called ‘home’, and found out about what ‘Hwyl’ looks like in other cultures."

Being a Welshman, I feel immensely privileged in being brought up to know, understand and play the game that, in many ways, defines what our small nation is all about. It has helped me build bridges across nations wherever I’ve found myself.  All the time, other people have been able to find out about Wales. Our national game, on reflection, is the ideal way to bring diverse people together: to engage in tough, physical and mental competition and then, when it’s over, to have great fun together laughing at ourselves and enjoying our new-found friends.

"Being a Welshman, I feel immensely privileged in being brought up to know, understand and play the game that, in many ways, defines what our small nation is all about."

Want to connect with Tim? Click here.

 

 

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