The boys and girls running on the dusty football pitch in a Rio favela could be kids anywhere in Brazil if not for one detail: The oddly shaped ball they’re chasing. Soccer may be king across the land of Pele, but in Morro do Castro, a favela (shanty) in the hills above Rio suburb Niteroi, rugby and the oval ball rule.

Sure, it’s not Twickenham or Eden Park. The pitch in Morro do Castro isn’t even close to the facilities you’d find at schools in Australia, Britain or other traditional rugby playing countries. Players wear a mishmash of shirts, some are barefoot. There are no rugby posts, the grass is patchy and when the ball’s kicked too far, it falls into an open sewer.

Should drug traffickers or police start shooting in the favela – a real hazard – kids are trained to take cover under a concrete wall behind the goalposts. But the rugby is serious. Two dozen young players sprint over the threadbare turf, spinning the ball between hands in swift, well coordinated drills.

And when they perform the haka, New Zealand’s famous Maori war dance, their passion is unmistakable, even if there’s a bit of a samba vibe, with plenty of dabbing for good measure. By the end of training, Lucas Aquino Chagas, a dreadlocked 17-year-old who captains one of the touch rugby teams, sports a big smile.

Brazil, with a population of 208 million, only has about 16,000 registered rugby players, compared to the millions in football. It’s fair to say that most teenage boys probably dream of pulling on the national team’s yellow shirt or emulating Neymar’s riches. But Chagas’ dream?

“To play for the All Blacks,” he says without hesitation.

Tackling life

Robert Malengreau (right) has trained 400 children in the Morro do Castro community | Photo courtesy: Robert Malengreau

The man who brought rugby to this poor, sleepy and occasionally perilous tropical corner is Robert Malengreau. Half-British, half-Brazilian, Malengreau, 28, played at high amateur levels in England, and is an Oxford University graduate.

He always loved the game, but the tragedy of Brazil’s favelas, which are often under control of drug traffickers and shunned by the rest of society, made him want to try something more ambitious than just coaching.

So four years ago he launched an NGO called UmRio, or One Rio, with the idea that introducing something as foreign as rugby might also shake things up beyond the field. Rugby, he says, “is an entry point.”

To test his theory, Malengreau partnered with the school in Morro do Castro, a community he describes as “abandoned” by the government, and began teaching sport – and a new way of living. Players from around the world, including from Oxford and Cambridge universities, help with the actual rugby coaching.

But just as importantly, local dentists and doctors volunteer for clinics, boosting healthcare in a community of about 6,000 with only one permanent dentist.

Brazil's national rugby team has been on the rise, finishing fourth in the recent Americas Rugby Championship

English language courses and mentoring by Brazilian and foreign teachers mean that students get as much help with schoolwork as on tackling technique. A key symbolic point is backing from Oxford and Cambridge rugby clubs, which have donated their famous dark and light blue shirts, and the less tangible gift of encouraging favela kids to aspire. “It’s Oxford and Cambridge saying ‘the doors are open for you,’” Malengreau said.

About 400 children have participated so far and the message is getting through. As a black boy from a favela, Franklin Cruz, a small, nippy 14 year old, has grown used to people expecting him to wind up a drug trafficker or, at best, a low paid construction worker.

The rugby adventure, he says, has emboldened him. “Why not become an architect or a doctor or lawyer?” he asks.

Beach rugby champions

Malengreau says there was a “bit of a shock” when he first showed up in the favela with five enormous Oxford University players and a bag of rugby balls. “I’d never heard of rugby in my life,” Chagas says, remembering how his football-obsessed friends were astonished to be told, “’No, you’re not meant to kick!’”

The learning curve was only starting. Rugby is more of a team sport than football, less prone to relying on individual stars, Malengreau says. There’s also none of football’s culture of yelling back at referees.

Going against the grain of macho Brazilian society, girls play touch rugby on equal terms with boys. And Malengreau pushes them all out of their comfort zone by encouraging use of English phrases during training, like: “Ready, ready up!” before defending a line.

At a recent touch rugby tournament, the favela kids descended in two teams to Niteroi’s wealthy beach area to play other schools on the sand. One of Morro do Castro’s teams, resplendent in striped Cambridge University shirts, was crowned champion, prompting whooping and more dabbing.

Janaina Trancoso, mother of a girl in the program, said a bigger victory looms for these children who otherwise might never have imagined escaping the favela’s isolation. “I think a door has opened for them,” Trancoso, 40, said. “With time they will manage to see that the world is big and that there are other possibilities.”