It was the year when the world stopped. The days and the months that followed the COVID19 pandemic starting in 2020 felt like eternity. Flights cancelled, stadiums closed, streets emptied. Every day, new information about how the virus spreads. Every day, new death tolls. Every day, another announcement of lockdown extensions.

In the Philippines, the lockdown policies were not clear-cut. Like the virus, they underwent several mutations. But everyone understood that one rule that no-one should break. Stay at home or risk getting detained. The country had one of the strictest and the longest lockdowns globally. The people who made a living on the streets on a daily basis had limited options: catching the virus, getting detained, or hunger. The highways of one of the most crowded capitals in the world was empty. Armed checkpoints marked the borders of small villages, cities, and provinces. The Philippines was one of the last countries in the world to open schools for in-person lessons.

The two-year shuttering of schools not only disrupted the education of children and youth, but the routines that helped them live full and healthy lives. No hanging out with friends, no going out to play, and no physical activities because sports and recreational activities were not considered “essential.”

But even in this difficult environment, people adapted. In the island of Negros, the rugby community knew there needed to be a sense of normalcy despite the situation.

Rugby at home

“The pandemic was one of the biggest challenges we faced as a club, especially in terms of encouraging more children and youth to get into rugby,” said Glyssa Pajotal, Board Member of Negros Island Rugby Club. 

The Club had been growing rugby in their community since 2014, and in 2017 they introduced integrated rugby and life-skills learning through Pass It Back. Pass It Back reached younger people in their communities as parents were keen on seeing their children play and learn important skills for the future. Some of the players from 2017 have grown up to become Pass It Back Coaches themselves. 

“Despite all the restrictions, we went ahead with Reconnect Online, an adaptation of Pass It Back that allowed children to remain connected during the lockdown” said Glyssa. 

In Reconnect Online, over 100 community-based Coaches across multiple countries underwent training to ensure they were familiar with the new curriculum and tools, and to ensure that Coaches delivered an environment that allowed young people to remain connected to role models. The Negros Island Rugby Club brought this to their social media channel through a series that they called Rugby At Home.

Building back a better rugby community for women

The long lockdown may have halted outdoor activities and created uncertainty, but women in the Philippine rugby community found an opportunity to regroup, reconnect, and discuss opportunities and challenges for women and girls, so they could build back a better community once lockdowns ended.

In the latter part of 2021, community women rugby leaders in the Philippines reconnected through Grassroots to Global (G2G). G2G is an initiative supported by ChildFund Rugby and delivered by rugby unions across the globe to connect young grassroots rugby leaders to examine key barriers that prevent girls and women from joining or staying in rugby, and to identify key drivers that boost participation and retention. Grassroots to Global looks critically at exclusion in all forms, in support of sustained participation in rugby. 

In the Philippines, G2G was hosted by the Philippine Rugby Football Union (PRFU) in partnership with ChildFund Rugby. 30 women rugby leaders from across the country participated in the forums. Not only did they get to plan out how they can encourage more women and girls to get into rugby by creating a safe and inclusive environment, they were also able to revitalise their passion for the sport after a long hiatus.

“We’re being led by passion because we’re really passionate about the sport and we want to share that passion with other girls. If we feel empowered, we also want them to feel empowered through rugby,” said G2G participant Ish Lanzar of the Makati Mavericks in an interview with World Rugby.

Even after lockdown restrictions had been lifted, the women of G2G in the Philippines continued their advocacy for women and girls in rugby and even carried it to an international platform. During Rugby World Cup 2021, a Philippines G2G representative flew to New Zealand to meet with G2G members from other countries: community leaders from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Brazil, Mexico, USA, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Cook Islands, Australia and Kenya. The Grassroots to Global Connect Forum brought women together to identify and challenge barriers to community participation in rugby. The forum also strengthened the community leaders’ global network of women in rugby. 

Back in the Philippines, the work and the resourcefulness of the rugby community during the pandemic had inspired more young people to get into the sport. Before the pandemic, rugby participation in the country amounted to 1,838, but after the lockdown restrictions, rugby participation shot up to 3,123in 2023, and this momentum continues.

In the first week of January this year, PRFU organised their biggest coach training to date. 45 youth coaches from Albay, Metro Manila, and Negros Occidental converged in Talisay City in the island of Negros. The coaches were from the Albay Vulcans, Manila Nomads Club, and the Negros Island Rugby Club, under PRFU and ChildFund Rugby’s Club Champions project. The new coaches were trained by Pass It Back-certified educators.

“As with other countries who faced challenges over the years, the rugby community in the Philippines  stepped up and faced them head on. Through the pandemic and even through a devastating typhoon, they found ways to continue empowering children and youth, and to make an impact on their communities through rugby,” said Chris Mastaglio, ChildFund Rugby Director. “The importance of building strong community around sport cannot be overlooked – young women involved in rugby in the Philippines have shown an example of what is possible under challenging circumstances to keep vulnerable young people engaged, supported and learning through rugby.”