Almanac Memoir: The Vientiane Rugby Club


The Australian Embassy Recreational Club



It was Friday night at the Australian Club late 1989 and the darts competition was hotting up. With the collapse of European communism the Asian comrades weren’t taking any chances. After years of toeing the line, and getting nothing for it, save sweating Russian drunks and Yugoslav fridges, the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic had rediscovered the aid bucket with alacrity. They promised reform and openness in exchange for loans and grants from the international taxpayer (not consulted). Roads, bridges, airport upgrades, agriculture, forestry projects and economic reform efforts appeared along with oddities such as the Japan funded Vientiane Plain agricultural mechanisation project (help me Honda, help me Honda, with apologies to the Beachboys). The Lao PDR was back to what they knew best – milking foreign aid. They had a bit of form in that area. Right in the middle of town in the main boulevard stands the Patuxay Monument – an impressive structure, modelled on the Arc de Triomphe. No one knows it as that, rather it is the Vertical Runway. The Royalist government took the funds from the US that were earmarked for a new runway and used it for the monument. Can’t say I blame them as it was really an Air America containment strategy.


The new aid economy needed advisors and soon the Australian variety were ensconced and hard at work. They socialised at the Australian Club situated on the banks of the Mekong River facing Thailand. The club had a unique claim to fame.  It inadvertently supported unofficial emigres as a consequence of its alcohol consumption patterns. The clientele of the Club used to like their chateau cardboard. So did the locals willing to swim the Mekong into Thailand during the dry season despite the Lao Navy night patrols when fuel was available. The Australian Club staff used to sell the bladders of the casks to prospective emigres who covered them with black cloth and successfully used them as flotation devices to make their escape.


Back to the darts comp. The assembled were keen sports fans who shared the view that advanced physical fitness regimes were to be admired rather than emulated. The darts club policy committee expressed a keen desire to design and implement a hangover remedy to cleanse Friday and Saturday nights. The Vientiane Rugby Club was born.


High level negotiations between the Australian and US embassies were undertaken and a site owned by the latter was secured complete with tethered cows. The cows were re-tethered and used as pitch markers. All contributed in the peoples republic. The pitch sat under the lee of the new Soviet Embassy – a brooding ode to Uncle Joe architecture. It was never fully occupied as the Soviets had their electricity cut off by their former comrades for not paying their bill.


Some bright spark thought that if we going to have a rugby club we needed a constitution, rules and officers. That was duly considered and rejected in favour of the no office holders and no rules model. There was to be only one rule – no rules.  It served us well. We did however consent to a sanctions committee but no officers – to enforce the no rules rule. Decision was to be made by general raising of eyebrows.


The players were a diverse and unique lot.


Ian Swan (Swanny) hailed from Mangoplah Cookardinia and was a diehard Pies fan. Swanny was a road-builder and was passionate about transfer of skills to counterparts. He demonstrated this when an Australian embassy lass dropped in to his workshop to enquire about whether her vehicle was fixed. Swanny called over his Lao counterpart and asked him for a report on the vehicle. The Lao bloke pushed his cap onto the back of his head, scratched his arse and said: “Yeah, nah, it’s rooted, fucken thing won’t go.” Swanny beamed.


Mark Liersch, another road-builder, collected hulks of American classic cars and rebuilt them. My job was to steer skeletons of these forsaken classics including a cherry red Ford Mercury and a ’65 Mustang through the streets late night without lights as he towed them back to his spanners. Mark was concerned about security at his house but deemed that local dog breeds were unsuitable. He procured a monkey up country (reckoned he saved it from the cooking pot). That monkey terrified all and sundry as it barrelled towards the potential victim screeching till the chain saved the day.


Peter Dirou was a mild mannered IMF economist and a former opener in the NSW Sheffield Shield side. He was trying to put together as set of real national accounts and including the informal sector including golden triangle related activities. Tough job but who needs data. We all provided that.


The Queeenslanders were well represented. Basil McAffery was an aggie who did something upcountry that no one understood or talked about much. Dick Dixon was a road engineer who had a wicked sense of humour that when used often stopped the game. Geoff Kent, a forester, who no one could catch.


Western Australia was represented by a bloke called Harold. The late Harloy, as he was known by the Lao who had trouble with the word Harold, was an accountant from Perth with a fierce affection for the punt. That affection had its consequences as Harloy had to do a runner in front of an arrest warrant for embezzlement. He washed up in Vientiane and his skills were soon put to good use in the aid game. In 1990 Harloy’s absence from the pitch was noted. It seems that the long arm of the law had caught up with him when he returned to Perth for his father’s funeral. Harloy spent several months on a prison farm and, as he explained it, helped out with the accounts. He duly returned to the rugby, partying and general roistering without much comment.


The Australian Ambassador Michael Mann was a keen player and brought along French, German and USA embassy types as ring ins. Michael was a welcome replacement for the previous ambassador who Swanny had named Filthy Phil because of his predilection for going the grope at official dinner parties.  Michael was reputed to have told PM Keating when asked what big ticket items can Australia fund, that the country needed a rugby club and a bridge to Thailand across the Mekong would be a good back up project.


The games were played in near silence, only the odd moo from the marker cows and a funny from the players. It was fun and everyone hung round afterwards and chatted amiably. It couldn’t last. Along came the Septic. He was right out of central casting: grain fed and believing that a tin ear and an abrasive manner was all that was needed to roll back Asian communism. He turned up one morning and during the pre-match banter started telling people what they ought to do. Jeez. The sanction committee hard nuts’ eyebrows were working for the first time. During the game he hogged the ball, told people where to stand and kept up an on field monologue. We let it go the first week on the condition that I have a quiet word during the week. It didn’t do any good as he delivered the same caper the following week and the eyebrows were up early. As he lumbered forward the ball was passed to him and a sublime shoulder charge duly executed. The ball was loose and the game continued – no rules you see. He got to his feet, abused us all and took the tin ear to the Russian hospital for cracked ribs. Not without irony that – helping Russians pay their Embassy power bill. Is this an allegorical tale about Americans in Asia? No, it just says that the no rules rule works.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    “the eyebrows were up early”

  2. Classic Nank.

    “Along came the Septic. He was right out of central casting: grain fed and believing that a tin ear and an abrasive manner was all that was needed to roll back Asian communism.”

    Great line.

    Along with many others.

    It’s got a bit of the ‘Carry on Up the Mekong’ about it.

  3. Peter Crossing says

    Good story Nank.
    You have certainly met some characters along the way.
    The no rules rule is often valid.

  4. Dr Rocket says

    As always a good yarn Nankers.

    When Michael Mann was President of RMIT Vietnam in Saigon he founded the VCA.
    He captained the RMIT team and insisted on opening the batting.
    Last time I saw him was at Chairman’s function at a Swans final at the SCG.
    Enjoyed the public squirt.

  5. That’s a ripper yarn, Nank.

    I look forward to more of these.

  6. Thanks fellas.

  7. Norman Welsh says

    Is the writer the Paul Nankivell [one time partner in Hassall] that I know who was one of the Aussie aid experts?

    Can’t remember all the names but a few are familiar.

    More recently there was an Aussie Rules football team formed but it was after I stopped working in Laos [or maybe I was too old to play anyway]

    Norm Welsh

  8. Norm, yes it is. He has many stories to tell. Nice to hear from you.

  9. Norm
    still poking about? Nice to connect in this way. What are you up to these days.

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