Having Welsh descendants the glorious sport of Rugby is in my blood. My playing days are long gone but the enthusiasm and excitement of supporting a team and watching a live match still gets the adrenalin flowing.

To my dismay when I arrived in Astana five years ago it was as if Rugby did not exist – the sports bars would not show it, the sports shops had never heard of an oval ball and the playing of Rugby was something probably done in the south!
So three years ago, in early March, as part of a weekend of Welsh celebrations a mad idea was formed – to play a game of Rugby on the frozen River Isil. The morning of the match dawned, bright sunshine, pure blue skies and crisp white snow and a rag tag band of people gathered from a wide variety of nations – it was to be Wales Versus The Rest of The world!

There were representatives, including a few watching Ambassadors, from South Africa, Norway, France England and of course Wales but sadly no Kazakhs.

That is until another Kazakh miracle happened; jogging along the walkway by the river came three young men passing a Rugby ball between themselves, focused on their throwing and catching they were oblivious to the sea of different coloured shirts and the spectators lining the river. I stopped them mid throw and asked if they had come to play? How did they hear about the match? Were there others?
They were confused – they were on their way home from training and decided to come along the river for a change! They did not know about the game but yes they wanted to play and they wanted their friends to play too. Frantic phone calls led to scores of players coming from every angle and they played, they played well!.

True warm friendships were made and the spirit of Rugby was reignited on that frozen patch of snow-covered ice at minus 30 degrees. Hot mulled wine and traditional Welsh cakes finished off the event but also started a chain reaction.

Over the coming months different forms of Rugby started to evolve in Astana. A tag Rugby team at Haileybury School, a touch Rugby group , two junior teams at local schools and a development of some amateur local teams but it was not until one year later when many of the elements came together, this time through hearing of the legendary ‘Rugby on the River’ and the intervention of the British Embassy.

Two different young Kazakh men, who turned out to be both players and junior coaches, made contact with the embassy to find out how they could be involved in this years ‘Rugby on the River’ and so a new chapter started and a more formal approach had to be taken. Permission from the Mayors office, selection of a new venue when an early thaw made the river too dangerous and even sniffer dogs to check the pitch were all required and this years event was a wholly Kazakh affair with teams coming from Karaganda, Shatinsk and Astana and a junior competition too!

With the stunning backdrop of Astana’s futuristic skyline and the Presidential Palace four hours of rugby took place with great competition, humour and camaraderie and there was a thirst for more.
Over the next few weeks the momentum gathered pace with meetings of the Kazakh Rugby Federation and a small conference to plan the future of Rugby in the Astana region. And so it emerges !

It is true that Rugby was always in Kazakhstan – indeed the country competes well in the International Rugby Sevens and the womens team have a high world ranking – this year sees the fiftieth anniversary of Rugby in Kazakhstan and this gives an opportunity for greater cohesion, communication and involvement in the game. With the Kazakh psyche for physical sport involving strength and stamina it should natural that Rugby has a foothold here – hopefully with recent developments and the continued enthusiasm this will be the case. We will attract players, followers and hopefully sponsors so that this can be the new emerging Rugby capital for the Central Asian region – it will only take another Kazakh miracle and I know that those happen!

text by Gareth Stamp
photos Anastassiya Palagutina