JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - A week after the announcement that South Sudan is to have a soccer academy, championed by former Portuguese international Luis Figo, the world's newest nation tried its hand at another European game: rugby.
Hundreds of Juba residents turned out to watch a rugby match that pitted the “SSBL Warriors”, sponsored by South Sudan's first brewery, South Sudan Beverages Limited, against the “Shalina Sharks”, which is backed by Shalina Pharmaceuticals.
The Warriors won the match, 30-15, but fans and players said that what mattered more than the numbers on the scoreboard was that South Sudan has made a foray into rugby and that money was raised for children in need.
"I don’t even know what the score was," said Louis Peters of South Africa, who played for the Warriors and happens to be the commercial head of South Sudan Beverages Limited.
"I know that we won, but that’s not the point of this. It’s not so much about winning than it’s about having a good time, playing sports and getting lots of money for charity.”
The match raised several hundred US dollars for the charity Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC). CCC needs at least $400 per year to care for one child, and hopes to raise several hundred thousand dollars through various events, including more rugby matches, the charity's Cathy Groenendijk said.
The game also brought a ray of sunshine into the lives of children in need, said Groenendijk.
"These kids they have grown up in the slums, on the streets...It’s great for them to know that all the people who are here are interested in their welfare and in their future," she said.
As for the future of rugby in South Sudan, it, too, is looking bright..
"This is just the beginning of the game in this country," said Kennedy Lodiong, who played for the winning SSBL Warriors.
"In future, we are forming a South Sudanese team whereby it will be full of South Sudanese only," he said.
When that happens, the rest of the rugby world will have to watch out, said Peters, whose native South African side has twice won the Rugby World Cup, in 1995 and in 2007.
“The South Sudanese are blessed with very good genes," said Peters.
"They are very big people, very athletic, and they are very aggressive. And you need all of those to be good at rugby," he said.
There is a berth for another African team, besides South Africa, which ranks second in the world in rugby, at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. It's too late for South Sudan to qualify for that competition -- but a South Sudanese side could vie for a place at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.