Serbia: Europe’s rugby league future?

Serbia, it is fair to say, is not a country which one generally associates with rugby league but that could be changing fast.

Our game has deep roots in the former Yugoslav republic, being first introduced to the nation in 1953, largely under the aegis of the French RL authhorities who were looking to expand the game.

Dragan Marsicevic, then secretary of the Yugoslavian Sport Association, played a significant role in organising the first fixture, which took place in November 1953 with a local selection playing against a team of French students.

Partizan and Radnicki were the first two clubs in the country, also formed in 1953.

Sadly, rugby union would once again exert its baleful influence on our development, when the Yugoslav authorities in 1964 demanded that all Serbian clubs switch to the 15-man code.

This was because Croatia played union and the government apparently wanted a unified Yugoslav ‘rugby’ team.

But the flame never quite died away and rugby league was reborn in Serbia in 2001. Just recently the national team has enjoyed some significant success and is in with a chance of qualification for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.

As current international Austen Novakovic explains, the Serbs are optimistic about their chances of reaching the elite tournament.

STEVAN STEVANOVIC HIGHLIGHTS

“We have a number of plans in place for the World Cup qualifiers,” he told Love Rugby League.

“We have been drawn in a really tough group with Wales and Italy. However, we are confident that we can grab that middle place and then go on to the World Cup

“There are a number of Serbian heritage players in the NRL and lower leagues who have put their hand up to play.

“We believe that we can have a great mix of domestic and heritage players and create a solid squad.

“We are desperate to make it to the World Cup, it will have a huge benefit to rugby league in Serbia. Serbian people are hugely passionate and will get behind the team if we make it.

“It really could take the sport in Serbia to the next level.”

Novakovic himself is a former professional with Oldham, who became involved with the Serbia national team while he was playing in the reserves at Halifax.

He qualifies via his Serbian grandfather who moved to Huddersfield during World War Two.

“At the time our captain Luke Simeunovich had represented Serbia, so I contacted the Serbian Federation and within a few months I was in Prague representing the Under-18’s,” he explained.

“A month later I was playing for the national team versus Russia and in Beirut versus Lebanon at 17 years old.”

Since then, Serbia have progressed on the international stage and recorded their first ever win over Russia in May 2015.

That win helped them to claim a spot in the World Cup qualifiers and was a significant moment for the Serbian game, according to Novakovic.

“Beating Russia was definitely a significant win for Serbian RL,” he said.

“My first national team game was against Russia back in 2008 and they absolutely destroyed us in every department.

“But through sheer hard work developing the game we have got closer each year and we finally beat them. It really shows that we are going the correct way about growing the game in Serbia.”

Wakefield coach Brian Smith is now an advisor to the national team, while a domestic league is also developing well.

SERBS TRAIN WITH WARRINGTON 2014

Novakovic acknowledges, though, that significant work remains to be done to develop a proper depth of player quality.

“It’s very difficult for the Serbian boys to make the step up from the Serbian league to be playing against full-time and semi-professional players,” he said.

“This is one area we are looking to improve and we now have a number of players playing in France.

“Hopefully in the near future we will see more boys moving to Australia, England and France to continue there development and make that transition from amateur to professional. It’s the only way we can improve as a nation currently.

“We don’t worry too much what other nations are doing, if they want to rely on heritage players then that isn’t a problem to us.

“We are happy with our approach to developing the game and we believe in what we are doing. Slow steady progress has worked so far and we will continue to do this.

“We’re currently in the middle of a huge project that has got around 250 young people playing the game. These players will be the future of Serbian RL and will guarantee sustainable growth and hopefully these young players will be representing the national team in the next 10 years.

“We used the money won from the RL development fund to help fund this, we also had funding from the Australian Embassy in Belgrade and had Matty Bowen come over as an ambassador for the project.

“One issue we have is that Serbia isn’t in the EU. So any European funding that becomes available doesn’t come to us. We have done well with the little resources available.

“The competition in Serbia is now much more competitive than ever before, which will benefit the game in Serbia. Partizan have a very young team and have only been playing RL for around three years.

“They converted from rugby union and have gone from strength to strength each year.”

One issue which dealt a bit of a blow to the Serbian reputation was the mass brawl which occurred in the game against an Ireland domestic team in summer 2015.

The Serbian coach punched an Irish winger who was about to score a game-sealing try, and a brawl erupted on the sidelines.

The sport is now moving forward from the incident Novakovic explains.

“The incident against Ireland was a disappointing one for us as a nation,” he said.

“It hit us really hard. There are no hard feeling between the two nations. It was a moment of madness and one man’s actions do not represent a whole nation.

“We would happily welcome Ireland back to Serbia.”

What that incident did show was the kind of spirit and passion Serbs bring to their sport.

With the Serbs now up to sixth in the European rankings, and rising to 11th from 14th in the World Rankings, perhaps it is time other countries took a look over their shoulders.

With plenty of drive, passion and commitment to hand, it may be time to heed the call that ‘the Serbs are coming’.

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