As the 6 Nations sides were preparing for the upcoming 2015 Rugby World Cup, here in Luxembourg two other teams were also getting into gear for a rugby match between Luxembourg Rugby 7s and the players at the Centre Penitentiaire de Luxembourg at Schrassig Prison.
In 2013, Edouardo Angioni started a project in collaboration with the Service National de la Jeunesse to offer rugby as a physical activity for prisoners in pre-trial detention at Schrassig. The programme consisted of three weekly two and a half hour sessions of touch rugby training for a three-month period, before a game was set up between the Luxembourg Touch players and the newly-formed prison team, 'The Barbarians'.
Since the Touch Prison project in 2013/2014, Angionni has worked with RCL Juniors coach Paul Sweetnam to provide three months of weekly and sometimes bi-weekly training to a seven-a-side prisoner team. The prisoners had originally taken part in a day's contact rugby training with Luxembourg National Coach Marty Davis and were ready for the match.
Misfortune befell the Luxembourg side early, as Captain Saman Rezapour was kept off the pitch after being unable to receive security clearance in time. Injuries on the part of Francois Simon and Max Dozin restricted their participation to limping Referees and Edouardo Angioni chose to play for the home side, leaving the Luxembourg side with only 7 fit players.
The Prison team started early with tackling, withstanding runs from Luxembourg 15s wing Kevin Kombia, a force to be reckoned with. It was the home side which opened scoring with a converted try after a prison player ran the length of the pitch. Another injury reduced Luxembourg's team to six players, offering both home and numerical advantage to the prisoners for the remaining 13 minutes of match time.
Scott Browne, Luxembourg's number 10, gave a powerful kick which started the Away team into action with 2 quick tries from Rugby Club Luxembourg's Jeremy Ferre and Francesco Tolomei. A raw speed from prison wingers meant two more tries, but Angioni missed the conversions due to crucial chasing down from Maurizio 'The Hooker' and recently named RCL Club 'Man of the Year' Peter Hartmann.
Former Luxembourg National Soccer goalkeeper Stephane Gillet scored, closing the gap between the scores 24-21 with 60 seconds to go. As the final seconds ticked away, all six Luxembourg players worked together in a slick counter attack resulting in Ferre crossing for the winning try. Browne converted as the final whistle blew, leaving the visitors triumphant at 28-24.
Following the match, co-ordinator of the project Paul Sweetnam thanked the Luxembourg players for committing to the match, as well as Prison Management, the sports instructors and the Prison's Head of Sports Services Matyas Zlatnik. Sweetnam continued: "The Prisoners have shown tremendous discipline, commitment and determination. You learn a lot about people in sport, especially contact sport. These men have approached each and every training session with the right spirit and attitude, they should be applauded for their efforts and hopefully we will see them at Rugby training on their release."
His associate co-ordinator, Eduardo Angioni, was enthusiastic about the effect the prison project continues to have, saying: "I was really proud to play for the prison team. They have all made sacrifices in one way or another to prepare for this game, I hope this gives them the confidence to see what can be achieved by team work."
The positive influence of the project was also apparent in the post-match reactions of Luxembourg's players, with Maurizio 'The Hooker' stating "For me, it was a great experience! First of all, I've never been in a prison. Secondly, myself, I'm working as an educator (social worker) for the City of Luxembourg (with kids between 4-12 years) and so it was very interesting and new to see a different field of work as a social worker".
His teammate Scott Browne was in agreement. "It really puts things into perspective when we think we are having a tough time...I honestly didn't know what to expect, speaking the night before someone told me 'when the gates close behind you, then you realise how serious it is'. [...] You couldn't help but be overcome with curiosity as to the circumstances that led them to be in here...saying that, going in with an open mind you soon forgot where you were playing against. 'Don't judge a book by its cover'. The Rugby in Prison Project is doing amazing work, speaking to the prisoners afterwards you can tell it is actually changing lives."
Jeremy Ferre was equally enthusiastic, adding "My experience of that day will long remain rooted in my memory. [...] it is always fun to see the game in its simplest form: a ball, 14 players, is a source of pleasure and freedom. In an instant we forgot the walls and barriers around us. I share the view that this sport, teaching values such as respect, commitment and team spirit is complementary to the work done in the prison to set these men on the right path again."