Rugby, it has been said, is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen. However, in Taiwan, it is a hooligans’ game played by baboons – the Taipei Baboons Rugby Football Club, to be exact, Taiwan’s oldest expat Rugby Union team.
They comprise three teams: the Taipei Baboons (men’s rugby); the Babeboons (women’s rugby); and the Silverbacks, (men’s over 40 rugby).
They’re a tight-knit crew, a band of brothers and sisters with many stories to tell, some of which can actually pass the censors and be printed. Others, well, “What happens on tour stays on tour!”
But their most central story, and one they don’t keep quiet about, is literally a bloody tragedy. Fifteen years ago this fall, on October 12, 2002, terrorists blew up Paddy’s Pub in Kuta, in Indonesia’s resort island of Bali, and then a minute later, exploded a car bomb outside the open air Sari Club across the street. The blasts killed 202 people.
The Baboons, down for a rugby tournament, lost five of their own: James Hardman, 28, of Australia; Daniel Braden, 28, of England; South Africans Godfrey Fitz, 39 Craig Harty, 35, and Eve Kuo, 24, of Taiwan.
Australian Max Murphy was one of the lucky ones: “I was talking to Peter Chworowsky about opening a sports bar before I went to the toilet. On the way back I stopped to watch Emenim dressed as a Taliban singing “Without You” – This was the song playing when the bomb went off. The first bomb went off at Paddy’s Bar across the road. …Then the second bomb – the car bomb – went off. C4. It was just a wall of force that’s all…I’m not sure if I passed out. It was just pitch black and silent. Then I heard the fire and the screaming. I was under the roof but could get free. I am sure all around me died. I got up and saw a wall of fire and thought to myself that I am going to have to run through this to survive. Then I heard my brother screaming at me from up the wall. I went towards him. As I went that way there was one guy buried under rubble from the wall that had fallen in. He looked too far gone. His face still haunts me. … Walking out to the main road – it was chaos. Bodies everywhere. We ran to the store to get water and pour it on burns etc. and try to get people on bikes that the locals were riding to get people to hospital. There was flat bed bikes full of bodies – not sure if living or dead. After a while we weren’t sure what to do and headed back to the hotel to see if others made it.”
“The timeline over the next week is hazy. I remember fielding lots of calls from relatives and telling them that we don’t know what happened to their loved ones – that was extremely difficult….There were lots of meetings at the Hard Rock Hotel that were full of emotional relatives demanding answers. There was shouting etc. At the end of one of these emotional meetings, James Hardman’s dad pointed a shaking finger at us and said “Live it guys, just live it”. This is now the Baboons motto, and is written on their jerseys.
“After about a month, I called Peter from my car driving back from Taoyuan and said. ‘Remember we were talking about opening a sports bar before the bomb went off? Let’s do it’”, said Murphy. So they opened the Brass Monkey on Fuxing North Road, which became the team’s hang out. A memorial jersey was hung on the wall with the date of the attack on it. The jersey has since been taken down, but Bali will always be one of the defining moments for the club.
Another key moment for the Baboons’ was their beginning, 12 years prior to Bali. The man that helped them get organized was a Taiwanese rugby enthusiast named Best Wu. “One rainy day in 1990, down at National Taiwan University, I was playing rugby with some friends,” said Best. “Afterward a French guy called Pascal came over and asked me how he could get involved in rugby in Taiwan.”
It turns out that there was a bunch of French guys who used to meet up regularly at the Landis Hotel, where one of the chefs was an avid rugby player. But for expats back in the days before the World Wide Web, figuring out how to get things organized here in Taiwan was a real challenge.
This Frenchman had asked the right guy. Not only did Best speak English, but when it came to rugby in Taiwan, he knew the score. Involved in rugby since his teens, he had been captain of his high school rugby team down in Tainan. “Back then, rugby was very popular. In 1967, there were rugby championships between northern and southern league teams at a former baseball stadium in Tainan. About 15,000 people attended.”
Best said that rugby continued to be popular in Taiwan through the 1970’s and 80’s, largely because it was supported by Chiang Ching-kuo, (the son of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek). Chiang Ching-kuo was ROC Defense Minister from 1965 to 1969, premier from 1972–78, and then president from 1978 until his death in 1988. All through his time in government, he actively promoted rugby as a training sport in the military both for teamwork and rough-and-tumble athleticism. Many boys who knew they’d be doing rugby in their two-year military stint got into the sport in high school.
Best studied at National Chengchi University, where he became both rugby player and team coach. Later, he played rugby hard during his own two years in the military.
When he got out of the army, rugby union in Taiwan was going strong. There was a national team, and many club teams. One team in particular, the Old Boys (OB), former students from the elite Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School, dominated club rugby in their distinctive black jerseys. “For ten years, they beat every other team,” said Best.
This led to the creation of their would-be nemesis, the Giants. “We wore white jerseys, to be the opposite of the OB!” When they finally beat the Old Boys in a game, with Best as one of their star players, it was a sweet victory!
But Best said that the glory days of Taiwanese rugby were coming to a close. When Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, the subsequent change of the guard left no high-level supporters for military rugby. In addition, sports universities had started offering full scholarships for top rugby athletes. This meant that the non-sport universities soon couldn’t compete with them, and their programs faltered. With no clear future in rugby, high school programs withered as well. Things were looking glum for the game. The glory days of 15,000 people in a stadium for Taiwanese rugby were over. “The biggest games now only got a few hundred people,” lamented Best.
He played on as a top club player until he was 38 years old, and then started to tone it down a bit. Until one day in 1990, when Pascal Deville approached him on a muddy field.
Best generously offered to share his local knowledge and help the expats organize. Soon they got together the requisite 15 players for a team: 7 Frenchmen, and 8 players from New Zealand, the UK, Canada and the USA. There were two ideas for a name put forward, “the Frogs” and “the Baboons”. The French went for “Frog” en bloque, but they were outvoted 8 – 7. And so in 1991 the Taipei Baboons came barking into the world!
In these early years, Best says that the members were mainly expats here for a couple of years. Some of them were businessmen, others engineers working on the MRT. There were also some government officials, including David Hughes, Canada’s de facto ambassador to Taiwan. Best was a key part of the team, serving in different years as president, honorary president, and then general secretary.
During the ’90s, The Baboons started getting involved in international rugby, going to places like Bali and Manilla. Best wasn’t usually playing in competition games anymore, but remembers how in the 1994 Manilla 10’s, one of their players wasn’t allowed into the Philippines due to a visa glitch. Best had to fill in for him on the pitch. He nailed it! “People still remembered me for that game when I went back to Manilla in 1995 and 1996!”
And so the team played on, time neatly divided between pitch and pub! But their style of play started to evolve, partly due to demographics and partly due to growing cultural awareness.
“You play to the ref,” says Australian Mark Goding, aka Mr. Sausage. But this message was lost on some of the more experienced expat guys who just played rugger the way they had grown up to. According to Peter Chworowsky – Dan Ryan’s and Brass Monkey co-founder, Bali survivor, and former Baboons president – these old school guys had a more aggressive “on the edge” style of play, pushing the envelope on static with opposing players, and talking back to the referee. One former Baboon told me that direct physical violence, like an elbow to the head, used to be common between opposing forwards, when they could get away with it. Mr. Sausage said that there were also some miscommunications, as in if you said “Fuck!” after a ref’s call, that would be interpreted as telling the ref to fuck off, which was not the intention. Chworowsky said, “We got the reputation as a bit of a dirty team, so some teams wouldn’t play us.”
Then the demographics began to shift, and with it the team culture. In the 2000s, there were starting to be fewer business expats and more English teachers. (More recently, there have been many foreign students as well.)
“These new guys tended look up at us older guys who had been here longer, and we were able to help them meet the local cultural expectations,” said Chworowsky. Hence, the playing style became looser and less “mano a mano.” This is probably a good thing. Chworowsky himself has had his neck broken while playing in Manilla. Fortunately, he recovered. Not so fortunate was Jack Liu, a young Fu Jen University student who had tragic spinal damage in 2009 and is paralyzed. Rugby is a violent game.
Mr. Sausage is one of the older “new school” ESL guys who got into the game. Like his hairy appearance, kangaroo Dundee accent, and oft-successful attempts at humor, his personal history is good for of comic relief. “When I started playing rugby, the Baboons had a lot of South Africans who didn’t like to pass the ball to a newbie with two left feet. They also tended to speak with each other in Afrikaans. So I decided to make some boerewors (traditional South African farmers’ sausage) and share it with them. But I got the recipe wrong: instead of using dried coriander seed, I used cilantro. I remember sharing it with the Saffas and they were like, ‘What’s this green stuff man?’ But at least they opened up to me a bit more.” This led to him becoming a sausage maker by trade, opening Mr. Sausage’s Kitchen, which supplies sausage to many prominent local restaurants.
Current president Welshman Andrew Leakey says that now there are lots of Baboons who have married Taiwanese women, have kids, and who speak Chinese. This also helps them get along better with the locals. Mr. Sausage, married to a lovely Taiwanese lass, said that he can show up at a game of the local team “Giants RFC” and they’ll happily let him play with their jersey – a huge step forward in cross-cultural relations. It’s also part of what Leakey says is the special nature of club rugby in Asia, the social side. “Back in Wales, if you play rugby, you play rugby, and it’s very serious. But here, almost anyone can play.”
But this evolution from old school to new school didn’t happen overnight, and the Baboons had yet to get through their roughest year ever: In 2002, stalwart Best Wu moved to China, and key members and former presidents Pascal Deville and Roger Rosbenburger left Taiwan. The changing of the guard had begun. Then came the carnage in Bali.
Best said that, after the bombings, “The Baboons were really lucky they had Peter Chworowsky to take over and lead them”. Chworowsky became president in 2002 and held court as “El Dictator” until 2007. After that, there were a series of presidents doing shorter terms, including Bernie Moore and Travis “Trash” Boyer (There’s a great story about “Trash” in Manilla I can’t tell!) until 2010 when Andrew Leakey took the wheel. Leakey’ biggest club-related peeve is that they don’t have a real home pitch to play at, and instead must use the Bailing public pitch in Shihlin District.
Leakey said that there are about 80 Baboons in total, but there are hundreds of ex-players, friends of the team, and family members who are connected because of Bali and other events. The Baboons went back to Bali for the 10th anniversary of the bombings in 2012, and on Saturday, October 14 this year, they played a memorial game to honor the fallen five for the 15th anniversary of the blasts.
Sadly though, they also had two more fallen rugby brothers weighing heavily on their hearts. One of these was rugby legend Liu Bo-Yi, who died of cancer this summer at the age of 57. Mr. Liu was integral to Taiwanese rugby since the 1970s, being on the national team and participating in the Hong Kong 7’s, Asia’s premier rugby event. After retiring from pro-rugby, he helped develop youth rugby in Taiwan, and played with the Giants RFC. The other was a Baboons player: Logo Alimau Nafatali, a 22-year -old Tuvaluan business student at Ming Chuan University, who perished along with his girlfriend in a rooftop fire in Shilin in August.
“It’s been a rough summer,” Leakey said.
But the club carries on, draining kegs of beer, training or playing matches at Bailing field, rain or shine – or going on tour in Taiwan and around SE Asia. There’s always the next party, practice or game, and in the face of the death the team has endured, what else can they do but live? So, faithful to their motto, the Baboons are living it.
The Taipei Baboons RFC would like to thank their sponsors: