Rory Stewart MP last week dropped in on a rugby coaching session at St Catherine’s Primary School in Penrith. The session was led by John Cooper from Kirkby Stephen’s Upper Eden Rugby Club, and Aubrey Mkhize, Upper Eden player and coach, and participant in the South African Rugby Union exchange program.

Aubrey is a former professional player from South Africa who is now pursuing a career in coaching through the exchange program, which sees talented rugby players and coaches from the traditionally disadvantaged areas of South Africa given the opportunity to spend between three and six months in the UK. They are hosted locally, coach rugby and share their culture within the community. Missing from the days session to sit an exam was Acwenga Gova, known as Sam, who is also participating in the programme and playing for Upper Eden.

John Cooper, Upper Eden Rugby Club Chairman, said: “It was a pleasure to have Rory Stewart meet this year’s South African visitors, his interest is most welcome. Since 2002 the Eden Community has welcomed and hosted over 30 SA visitors on this exchange programme, made possible  because of the support and generosity of Eden individuals, companies and schools. Upper Eden Rugby club and The Eden Valley Sports Partnership have worked together to benefit both the community and youth sporting opportunities, hoping this programme will allow us to continue to do so.​”​

The program launched in the UK in 2002, with Upper Eden being one of the original participating clubs, and operates alongside Eden Valley Sports Partnership to deliver first class rugby coaching into local schools; promoting health and fitness, increasing confidence, nurturing young talent, providing exit routes into local clubs, and offering the children a unique cultural experience.

Becky Wolstenholme, Development Manager for Eden Valley Sports Partnership said: “​We are delighted to work with local sports clubs and partners to enhance the offer of p.e. and sport to all young people in our partnership.  It is extremely important to provide a wide range of sports and activities for all young people to encourage and enable them to lead healthy active lifestyles.”​

The exchange program is supported by the British High Commission in Pretoria, the South Africa High Commission in London and the South Africa Chamber of Commerce, as well as Prince Harry, and Rory Stewart is due to meet with the Exchange Program Coordinator, Richard De Jager, in London in January.

Aubrey Mkhize said: “I’m loving my experience in Cumbria, and enjoy the challenge of coaching young kids who often have no experience, as well as the established teams like Upper Eden and the Lancaster Uni team. Some of the kids I work with have never seen or spoken to a person from a different continent, so it’s great to be able to share my culture with them, and I have taught them all how to greet in my home language.”​

Rory Stewart said: “I am very grateful to Aubrey and Sam, and the South African Rugby Union exchange programme for providing this opportunity for Cumbrians, which goes well beyond sport. The positive and lasting impact that participation in sports has on our young people cannot be underestimated, but this is much more than that. The rich cultural experience that this program provides, prepares our children for life in an increasingly diverse, globalised society, and I hope that the program will continue in Cumbria for many years to come”.15002493_10154035110485737_1898731526743821788_o

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