Sport Serbian Rugby League Goes Global

January began with a famous Australian rugby league coach visiting Serbia, and ended with Serbia’s top rugby league players heading to Australia, where the boys from the Balkans are currently showcasing their skills on the biggest stage in the sport, in a bid to boost Serbia’s upcoming World Cup qualification campaign

It all started on a crisp, clear, freezing New Year’s Day, overlooking a cloudless Belgrade from the heights of INGE Sports Centre, high on the hill in Zvezdara Forest, exhaling condensation clouds to a chorus of crows as we awaited one of the world’s top rugby league coaches, who didn’t just happen to be in the Serbian capital by chance.

“I never thought I’d find myself on a Serbian footy field talking to local Serbian players who are now ranked 11th in the world!” admitted Brian Smith, as he addressed 14 select players from five Belgrade clubs, following a short, impromptu training session on 1st January.

“I’m looking forward to working with you boys in getting Serbia to the next world cup,” added a freezing but enthusiastic Smith, who flew in from the UK – where he is currently head coach at Super League club Wakefield Trinity Wildcats – to sign an agreement with the Serbian Rugby League Federation making him national team advisor for the upcoming world cup qualification campaign.

Now we have contact with players who are very keen to play, but also top players in Australia, such as the Trbojevic brothers (Manly Sea Eagles) and young Brisbane Broncos star Tom Opacic, who has all but confirmed that he wants to play in October

As Serbian Rugby League Federation (SRLF) President Predrag Pantić confirms, “we hosted Mr Brian Smith in Belgrade, with the support of companies Air Serbia, Harrisons Solicitors and KCTT. He attended a session of the national team, which was in the process of preparing for the tour to Australia that is part of the build-up to the qualifying stages of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Smith and the SRLF agreed that he will take on an advisory role during preparations for the 2017 RLWC qualifiers and for the qualifying campaign itself (October 2016).”

This vastly experienced coach (he has coached eight top Australian and English clubs!) will certainly help the national team progress and prepare to take on Wales and Italy (and perhaps also Russia) in its final world cup qualification matches in October 2016, but the PR aspect of his engagement cannot be undermined either, and is sure to enhance Serbian rugby league’s profile in the sport’s traditional strongholds…

Like Australia, for instance, where eight players and a support staff of two arrived recently from Belgrade, on a mission to advance the cause for Serbian rugby league in Australia. But wait. How did it come about that amateur rugby league players who mastered their trade on the football fields of Serbia ended up on a flight to the sport’s veritable ‘Mecca’? In the end it was a case of necessity, with experience teaching the Serbian Rugby League Federation that, when major tournament qualification is up for grabs, the countries against which Serbia competes will pull out all the stops to strengthen their squads with so-called “heritage” players, particularly from the rugby league hotbeds of the UK, France and Australia.

As Blagoje Stojilković, leader of the SRLF’s Project Australia, explains: “our pioneering rugby league federation decided, after last year’s Balkan Cup defeat against Greece, to launch this project.

“Regardless of the quality of our players and the fact that we are the champions of European Group B, that doesn’t represent the maximum we could achieve if we had the help of players of Serbian origin who come from Australia.” – Blagoje Stojilkovic, leader of the SRLF’s Project Australia

TOM OPAČIĆ – BRISBANE’S HOTTEST YOUNG PROSPECT

That’s because we know that, regardless of the quality of our players and the fact that we are the champions of European Group B, that doesn’t represent the maximum we could achieve if we had the help of players of Serbian origin who come from Australia. In the end, all nations do this. That was shown by Greece and also Italy. They come with a local team and we beat them, so they come with a team of Australians to beat us. In that Balkan Cup match that we lost against Greece they had ten players from Australia, and it was after that we decided to launch this project.”

VOJISLAV DEDIĆ – THE RED STAR CAPTAIN SHONE AGAINST RUSSIA

Stojilković’s initial visit to Australia on behalf of the SRLF led to the setting up of the Australian-Serbian Rugby League Committee, and he set about finding support to further Serbia’s development in the game among the Serbian diaspora community in the Sydney area – where rugby league is the number one sport! However, as he himself admits, “that didn’t prove so successful, because those people didn’t really have links to rugby league, but rather came together due to some kind of inertia. What was most important, though, is that we established contact with players… Now we have contact with players who are very keen to play, but also top players in Australia, such as the Trbojević brothers (Manly Sea Eagles) and young Brisbane Broncos star Tom Opačić, who has all but confirmed that he wants to play in October.”

After establishing support groups in Australia and later the UK, where Serbia also has rugby league “heritage” players, Stojliković spearheaded plans for participation in a rugby league nines (9-a-side version) tournament and an international test match against the Philippines, in which a combined Serbia team of home-grown players and heritage talent would be able play together for the first time.

Fast-forward to late January 2016 and we can return to the eight amateur players from three Belgrade-based clubs and a support staff of two that are now in Sydney.

JAKE and TOM TRBOJEVIĆ – ALREADY IN THE MANLY FIRST TEAM

After meeting up in Sydney, the team will first compete in the annual Cabramatta International Nines tournament, which sees emerging nations from around the world compete against club teams from the Queensland and New South Wales leagues

Alongside SRLF officials Stojilković and Radoslav Novaković, the players that have carved their names into the history books of Serbian rugby league by embarking on this tour are Dalibor Vukanović, Stefan Nedeljković and Steva Stevanović (all Dorćol Spiders RLK), Miloš Zogović, Miloš Ćalić, Vojislav Dedić and Vladislav Dedić (all Red Star RLK) and Džavid Jašari (Partizan RLK). However, they will not be alone, as Stojilković explains:
“On this tour we expect 12 Australian-born players to compete for Serbia. That, of course, doesn’t represent the full potential of our national team in Australia, because some of the top prospects are now in the middle of their pre-season training for the NRL (Australia’s elite professional league) or the state leagues, and the weekend when we play against the Philippines is also when the Auckland Nines will be played. We are currently collecting documentation proving that these 12 players have the right to represent Serbia, but what is most important is that they are all extremely proud that they will be able to represent the land of their parents or grandparents.”

The selection of the players to travel to Sydney may have been tough, but the logistical preparations and visa approvals went smoothly, and the SRLF was keen to give thanks for that.

“We would like to thank the Australian Embassy in Belgrade, and Australian Ambassador Julia Feeney personally, for going out of the way to ensure everything went without a hitch. The Australian Embassy in Belgrade has provided lots of support to the development of our sport over the last few years and we are grateful for every contribution,” said SRLF President Pantić.

After meeting up in Sydney, the team will first compete in the annual Cabramatta International Nines tournament, which sees emerging nations from around the world compete against club teams from the Queensland and New South Wales leagues in this short, dynamic version of the game. Not a great deal is expected of the team in this one-day, 34-team tournament, primarily because they will still be suffering from the effects of jet lag, but it will help them prepare for the main event – a full international test match against the Philippines on 5th February, after which Serbia will hopefully find itself even higher in the world rankings, and one step closer to the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.

“Supporters” of Serbian Rugby League

Rugby league is a sport that is adored by those who grew up with it, so much so that it is known popularly in its heartlands as “The Greatest Game of All”

However, the game’s traditional working class roots have also traditionally limited its global appeal. Today, though, with rugby league having shaken off its tag as the poor man’s code of rugby and been introduced to universities and the armed forces, it is finally gaining the popularity it deserves. Here in Serbia there are only a few people, the author of this article included, who consider rugby league to be the greatest game of all, and who are ready to exert the effort required to grow the game here. Here we have gathered the comments of three of the most prominent supporters of the game in Serbia regarding their love of the game and its development in Serbia.

Mark Harrison (Harrisons Solicitors)

I was born and bred in Yorkshire, the heartland of Rugby League in England. I lived and worked for many years in Leeds, and from 1992 onwards became a supporter of the Leeds Rugby League Club, which became the Leeds Rhinos in 1997.

Prior to moving to Leeds, I was a supporter of regular football, but after seeing my first Rugby League game live I realised what a fantastic game it was to watch. Rugby league is a fast and dynamic game, which involves great strength, stamina and skill.

After moving to Serbia in 1998, I lost contact with the sport until 2007, when I was asked by the British Embassy to help on a trip to Serbia by an English team. As the only English Law Firm in the country, I was delighted to help out, both from a purely personal point of view, but also as part of our drive to give something back to Serbia through Corporate Social Responsibility. It was clear that the Serbian Rugby League lacked funding, but there was a great spirit and camaraderie amongst the players and it felt great to help out.

Serbian Rugby League needs help to develop. Everyone who is involved is very committed, but they do need assistance of all sorts

After hosting a few trophies and doing various sponsorships, I became involved with Red Star Rugby League Club, who we sponsored and where I served as club president for three years.

The next natural move was to help at the national level, so we have been sponsoring Serbia for the last three years, through both shirt sponsorship and ad hoc tour assistance.

In essence, Serbian Rugby League needs help to develop. Everyone who is involved is very committed, but they do need assistance of all sorts. They have done incredibly well in the way they have developed over the last few years and I am proud to see them now ranked 11th in the world. Serbia has a great chance to make the World Cup in 2017 and I want us to do everything we can to help them achieve their dream.

Serbia is a great sporting nation and it would be fantastic to see the country also recognised for its Rugby League achievements.

Dane Kondić (Air Serbia):

It’s hard to be a Sydney-sider and not have an interest in the game. With me it’s not just an interest, but rather a passion and a life- long journey of support. I love the game and am a passionate, die-hard St. George supporter [NRL club St. George-Illawarra Dragons] and that’s inextricably tied to who I am as a person.

We Australians are lovers of all sport, but growing up in Sydney you had to be part of the game, because “League” is just in the blood. I remember the pre-NRL days, when News Corp got involved. That tore the heart out of the game and divided families. A group of teams broke off from the traditional clubs and were trying to lure St. George into their Super League competition, simply because it’s one of those legendary clubs for reasons that we all know [for those who don’t know, St. George has won 16 Australian Premierships (league titles), including a Golden Era of 11 consecutive premierships from 1956 to ’66], and that was a very tough time to be a rugby league supporter, with the game tearing itself apart from within.

I love the game and am a passionate, die-hard St. George supporter, and that’s inextricably tied to who I am as a person

I went to a school where we played rugby union. That was one of those things you just did at school, like soccer on the weekends, but out of school it was all about “League”. Rugby union was then still amateur and a minor sport, and wasn’t commercialised like it is now.

As for my experience in Serbia, I was visiting Belgrade once, walking on Kalemegdan, when I saw these guys wearing New South Wales rugby league jerseys. I was shocked to say the least. I asked them what they were doing here and they explained they were representing the New South Wales Universities team and they were in Belgrade to play against the Serbian national team.

They invited me to the game and, of course, I went. It was there that I first met the guys from the Serbian Rugby League Federation and that was a real thrill for me. I’ve been a supporter ever since.

Colin Kleyweg (KCCT):

There are many who would know better than I how strongly rugby league is interwoven into the fabric of Sydney, but I learnt how rugby league conjures up emotions when I was living in Sydney and the South Sydney team was removed from the competition. I remember walking from Redfern to Sydney Town Hall for our rally to save the club. Reports on the number of people vary, but there were plenty that supported the Rabbitohs, plus many who came from other clubs, including buses from Newcastle. This to me typifies the spirit of rugby league.

The story in Serbia is very similar. We have a wonderfully committed team that is supported by increased financial support from the RLEF. The story of Serbia’s success in the last 3 to 5 years should be spread as an example of how we should grow the game. The development of the Serbian Australian Rugby League helps us to spread the word of the development of the sport in Serbia and in Australia, where future support is vital.

The story of Serbia’s success in the last 3 to 5 years should be spread as an example of how we should grow the game

The first area we became interested in was the support of junior development in Serbia. Our goals in Serbia should not be limited to World Cup Qualification on a four-year cycle. We should be focused on developing the sport into the fabric of Serbia, and that can happen through a mix of success at international level, developing a home ground for rugby league in Belgrade, and developing the juniors. These are the core requirements for success in any sport.

Our interest is in supporting this wide range of activities that will help the team in Serbia build a strong foundation. We see qualification for 2017 as a small step. It is not the defining legacy of the hard work of a generation of Serbian Rugby League people.

In summary, we think every person who has been involved in a rugby league training session in Serbia should be thanked for their input to the success of the current team.

We hope the very small part we are playing will help bring more people to this great game!