Story by: Liam Ring, Photos by: Seoul Survivors
Rugby isn’t a sport we often associate with the Land of the Morning Calm. However, Seoul Survivor’s stalwart Joe Day, an ex-referee who has been on the peninsula since 1980, points out that South Korea usually held their own against East Sea rivals Japan until the Brave Blossom’s decision thirty years ago to enlist residential foreign players. Yet despite the Korea Rugby Union being well-established, with over 2,000 registered players and numerous University and Company teams, most expatriate’s experience of the sport here will be a trip to Incheon to cheer on South Korea as they try to avoid a shellacking at the hands of their neighbours. Against that background there is a growing grass roots movement helping to give the sport a greater presence as South Korea attempts to qualify for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. This is typified by an organisation that networks across the country, with one of the most dynamic sides around – the Seoul Survivors.
The Survivors, as one of the leading members of the Korea Expat Rugby Association (KERA), have been scrumming down since 1978. They initially played sporadic 15-a-side matches against touring sides and Korean Old Boys teams, totalling only a handful of games a year. However, the growing interest of military sides such as Camp Casey and Humphries, allied with KERA gradually focusing on playing the 10-a-side game, meant that more regular rugby could be played while not pressurizing squad sizes. Starting out as the only non-military side playing in the tournaments in the mid-90’s, the Survivors have seen the mainly English Teacher ex-pat sides increase while the military sides have reduced their involvement; until now when one combined military side plays in an eight team league and cup tournament that runs throughout the year. Regular Teacher teams are drawn from Seoul, Daejeon, Daegu , Jeonam, Geoje and Busan .Omitting the mid-season break in July / August and the close season in December / January, KERA sides are able to meet one weekend a month for an 8 game event. These matches form part of a league structure which builds towards a 14-game season culminating in early November for the Kera League Cup . The season wraps up later in November with a one day knock-out competition, with matches to crown the Kera Shield winner and ‘award’ the 8th side with a wooden spoon. Each side hosts one round of the season’s fixtures, giving players plenty of opportunity to travel across the country and meet like-minded fans of the game. It’s this building of the rugby community that helps to continue KERA’s rise.
Counting a squad membership in the mid-thirties, Seoul boasts a core group of players even as the ex-pat lifestyle means a regular turnover in members. Joe emphasises that the club rarely has problems in attracting members. “Rugby players new to an area will always be on the look-out for games, and those new to Seoul who love the game are attracted to our club”. This is something echoed further south, as an increase in foreign employees has allowed clubs in Daejeon, Daegu and on the south coast to develop stronger playing squads and a larger KERA’s infrastructure. Simon Walsh, Survivor’s captain and a veteran of 8 years, believes that having well-developed sides across the country is key in creating a league format where the level of teams are equal as well as encouraging players competitively with dieting regimens and trips to the gym.
The Survivors have also been able to build relationships overseas. The Yellow Sea Cup, co-founded by Survivor’s president Ted Gray, involves the Beijing Devils, the Shanghai Hairy Crabs and possibly in the near future the Taipei Baboons. Running for the past ten years, it gives the Survivors the chance to pitch their skills against 15s sides from overseas on a round-robin basis. Other touring sides this year include both male and female sides from Hong Kong University later this month. While the men of the Survivors and Daejeon Knights will square off against the Hong Kongers, HKU’s female side will play against the Seoul Sister’s club, who are celebrating their tenth successful year. All three games will take place at the Incheon Mechanical Engineering High School, a venue used in the past as finding appropriate pitches closer to home is a challenge. The club has also just returned from the international 10’s tournament in Manila and is planning a trip in the near future to Cambodia.
It’s building up to be a very busy season, and without both international and local support, the Survivors wouldn’t be having the successes they’ve had. Financial Sponsorship is provided by Savills Korea, Wilson’s Parking and the Hyatt Hotel and S.A.B. Miller the drinks giant also supply products such as VB and Kozel beer for fund-raising charity drives. With Seoul Survivors and KERA working to broaden the sport’s influence while having a presence in the community, there is still scope for what is already a success story. Upcoming events such as the Daegu 10s on April 11th and trips to Shanghai and Cambodia ensure that the Survivors will be kept busy, and as one of the most successful expatriate sports clubs in South Korea, there is no reason to think it can’t strengthen. Commitment to a cause is often half the battle, and the Survivors match that both on and off the pitch.
With many thanks to KERA founder Joe Day, Seoul Survivors Manager Yoon Sok-Hee and Captain Simon Walsh for their time and help with the article.