- Englishman Tony Gillings founded Rugby Belize in 2014
- Rugby has helped Gillings through his own personal battles
Rugby can help people in different ways. One man who has witnessed the power of the sport first hand is Tony Gillings.
As the founder of Rugby Belize, an organisation he launched in 2014 to introduce rugby in the small Central American country where 43% of people live below the poverty line, Gillings has seen how rugby can transform communities.
And while rugby’s growing impact in Belize is significant, the sport’s role in helping Gillings turn his own life around is perhaps even more meaningful.
5,000 miles from home
Born in Watford, Gillings had been stationed in Belize as a young man while serving in the RAF and had always intended on returning some day. It wasn’t until his life was turned upside down that the intention became a plan.
“I was diagnosed with testicular cancer when I was 38,” says Gillings. “That was pretty young to go through something like that and I dealt with it the best I could but it had a bad effect on my mental health as well.
“After getting through all that I went through a very painful divorce and I got to the point where i’d had enough. I needed a fresh start and I wanted to go somewhere that I felt I could make a contribution.”
As soon as Gillings discovered that rugby wasn’t played in Belize, he wrote a proposal document on how the sport could be introduced in communities to help direct the energy of those lacking opportunities and direction in a positive way.
The proposal was well received and soon after Gillings had moved his entire life 5,000 miles away to the promised paradise of Belize.
From early sessions on beaches and parks introducing the sport to anyone who showed interest, the country now has four sponsored teams who play inter-district matches.
Rugby Belize has gone from just Gillings and a rugby ball to a full board that is running programmes in schools and even prisons to spread the game.
It has been a remarkable few years and Gillings admits he has been taken aback by its early success.
“At the first inter-district competition I choked up a bit,” says Gillings. “It made me realise how far we had come and you could see how important rugby had become to people who had never heard of it before.”
Plans are now afoot for Belize’s first international fixture against neighbouring Guatemala and Gillings has big targets beyond that.
“The ultimate dream is to get a Sevens side playing in the Commonwealth Games and then the Olympics. We have been recognised by the Belize Olympic Association and Sevens is growing hugely so I think it can be done.”
Where once Gillings would walk down the street with a rugby ball and people would give him strange looks, he is now known as ‘Mr Rugby’ where he lives in Belize City.
And the parallel between the sport’s impact in Belize and on his own life is not lost on Mr Rugby.
“When you are in a situation like I was, you want desperately to belong to something because I lost everything. I lost my family and I was all alone so I wanted to create something that other people could belong to as well.
“What I love about rugby is the values of the sport off the pitch, it is a family in itself and it has made me feel alive again.”
When the NatWest Six Nations kicks off in February, Gillings will be following closely from 5,000 miles away in Belize where the sport and its values are flourishing thanks to his own passion and determination.