Celebrating the 11th anniversary of the Seoul Sisters foundation this May 1, the Seoul Sisters can look back on its time developing and representing women’s rugby on the peninsula with plenty of pride. Co-founder Natalie Hallemans remembers those early days well, when a thirst for the game wasn’t being catered to, and even the men’s version of the game was well below the standards found nowadays. Arriving on the peninsula after stints playing in New Zealand, the U.K. and South Africa, she set out with a few other far-sighted souls to set up Korea’s first female-only expatriate team and, over a decade on, the team heads to Okinawa this month for its first tournament of the year. Time to see if all that hard training pays off.
Eleven years of experience means that challenges – and there are plenty – can be overcome even if at considerable effort. A massive turnover during the close season saw only four of last season’s squad remain yet, through active social media recruitment and word of mouth, the club had 21 members from countries as diverse as Finland and Costa Rica at the first full practice. Another issue, and one which Hallemans has become deeply involved with, is coaching, as the Sisters seek to replace their much valued and respected coach who has also returned home. Along with Melanie Doucette, Hallemans has been putting the squad through its paces on the practice field in Apgujeong every Saturday lunchtime, but admits that it isn’t a role she’s that comfortable with. “I prefer playing. I think it can be confusing having a player-coach because in training people never know what hat I’m wearing when I’m speaking to them.” In addition to having little in the way of funds available to attract a full-time coach, the Sisters also face the perennial problem that many women’s sides have of losing coaches to men’s teams once experience is gained. “There are better start-up opportunities with the women’s program [for coaches], but it means that we often have someone seeking to develop as one.” With ball-handling, decision-making, set-piece and back-line play all on the agenda as Okinawa approaches, there is plenty to be done.
Heading to Okinawa for the weekend of May 14, the Sisters plan on entering two sides in the 3rd Annual Memorial Day Tournament. Run by the U.S. Military’s rugby team and taking place on base, the Sisters will enter 7-a-side action against teams from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. It will be the third trip to Japan for the Sisters after previous outings in Tokyo and Fukuoka, and the club sees it as a fantastic opportunity not only to compete (as the only all-female club), but also to network with clubs from across East Asia. What would qualify as a success? A trophy would certainly be fantastic, Hallemans agrees, but having a great time (and not picking up any injuries) is much more important.
Although the churlish may point out that the women’s game is still largely ignored, the Korean national team’s efforts in 7s gives some indication that change may be, if slowly, on the way. At the local level, the Seoul Sisters continue to fly the flag for women’s rugby, with matches against Korean ladies’ side Ellis as well as a 7s match against the national side late last year. To build the game in Korea, Hallemans is in zero doubt as to what is needed. “More games, a solid league structure, and sponsorship to allow clubs to travel overseas and gain more match experience.” While clubs in Tokyo and Hong Kong have seen corporate interest lead to an upsurge in the game (and the Japanese women’s national team will be the Asian representatives at this August’s Olympics in Rio) rugby in general on the peninsula could be in far better financial shape. The Sisters consider themselves lucky then to have sponsorship from Tiwi Trade, new Itaewon-based eatery Mozzie and Sin Bin sports bar, all of whom will be featured on the Seoul Sister’s new shirts courtesy of Hukit. The jersey manufacturer, used by several clubs across the country, is making good on a promise to supply the club with new kit coming off of a successful competition in the past. So suited (if not booted) as they say.
With May bringing the first tournament of the year, the club will be working hard to make the second part of the season as competitive as possible. A number of touring sides have expressed an interest in coming to Seoul – with the Sister’s legendary status as hosts with the most an added attraction for sides. Exhibition matches through the Korea Expat Rugby Association (KERA) are also a possibility and the club will continue to compete against Ellis. Anything else to add? The ultimate goal, confirms Hallemans, is for people to leave Korea “thinking I hung out with the Seoul Sisters and it was the best time of my life. We’ve had many people contact us to say that in the past. And it always gives us a buzz to hear it.”
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