Guatemala and El Salvador make history

The women's teams of Guatemala and El Salvador played their first international match earlier this month, breaking new ground in their respective countries.

There may be barely 100 players across the two countries, but that didn't stop history being made earlier this month when Guatemala hosted El Salvador for the first ever women's international match for both nations.

That the home side won 50-5 is only a small part of the story.

“Few believed that we could have 15s rugby in Central America, so having played this game was a huge achievement,” admitted Elisa Illescas, the victorious captain.

Women’s rugby is spreading fast across the Sudamérica Rugby region – which includes Central America – and even though there is a growing push for 15s now, it has mostly been developed in sevens.

“Now, there is a place for those that are not athletic enough to play sevens. It is a new dawn,” added Illescas.

The game came on the back of an Unión de Rugby de Guatemala renewed strategic plan for 2020-24. An all-encompassing workshop in September last year came up with the need to start organising more competition for their women.

Their first target was El Salvador, only 200 kilometres away. And the date chosen: 8 March to join in the International Women’s Day worldwide celebrations.

Unión de Rugby de Guatemala President Ángel Gaytán knew it was history in the making for two teams that are members of Sudamérica Rugby.

A new horizon

“The game was a superb experience, with all the nervousness of something new. It was a very special moment.”

Although Guatemala, an associate member of World Rugby since 2016, won comfortably on the scoreboard before a crowd of more than 200 people it was somewhat irrelevant, Gaytán adding “it was about the enthusiasm of all involved. The final score, whoever won, was far from important. It was the first time we were playing 15s.”

Women’s rugby started in Guatemala in 2012 and despite its eight years, the numbers currently stand at 52 registered players.

The goal is, of course, to increase that figure; sevens and rugby tens is already being played but the goal is to have more players and be able to play 15s, playing more international rugby with regional neighbours such as Costa Rica.

“When we invited El Salvador, they did not hesitate one second,” Gaytán said, convinced of the new horizon that has now opened.

For the game played at the Estadio Parque Eric Barrondo, the home of Guatemalan rugby for the past eight years, the visitors arrived the day before and then celebrated with their hosts over a big lunch before beginning the four-hour drive home. 

“You could feel Guatemala was nervous, playing at home, and with the meaning of the game. El Salvador scored the first try, but once we scored, they got in the rhythm of the game,” explained Gaytán. “It did not feel as if this was the first time these thirty girls were playing fifteens.”

Values to the fore

Five years ago Illescas, pictured throwing in the ball into the lineout, began her rugby journey and instantly fell in love with the game's values and the friendship.

“Football rules in this country but the respect I found in rugby was something that I loved.”

Having started at 22, she is fully aware that if there is to be a brighter future for Guatemala, they need more girls and women playing the game.

“The lack of knowledge means people think it is a violent sport and women think it is a male sport.

“We are trying to change that chip, taking rugby to girls and teenagers. If they see that we don’t get more injured that any other sport and how much we enjoy ourselves, then we will certainly have new players.”

That, and a “quick pathway to representing your country is a good calling card.”

Once the date for the game had been set, the six women’s clubs in the country got behind the plan. Illescas plays at hooker at the Ix U Rugby Club, a club named after a Mayan goddess that represents femininity and destruction.

“The game was a wonderful experience once the nerves settled. That first tackle was a wonderful sensation and as the game went on we felt more and more comfortable. It was a great day.”

The benefits of this first, historic international match will come in due course, in both countries, in Central America and in the rest of the region. 

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