How Ukraine is playing rugby league – and winning internationals – amid war

Ukraine is a country at war, but life – and sport – goes on away from the frontlines and rugby league plays its part in providing morale-boosting moments amid the strife.

‘THE winner is Ukraine’ was the headline that brought a smile to many in May 2022 after the war-ravaged nation won the Eurovision Song Contest. It stunned the world that a country devastated by Russian attacks was able to participate in the contest at all, let alone be victorious.

I am chatting with a beaming Artur Martyrosian immediately after Ukraine pulled off another morale boosting victory, this time on the rugby league field, winning 38-24 against a heavily favoured Greece side on a balmy day (does summer ever end in Greece?) in Aspropyrgos on the northwest outskirts of Athens. 

Ukraine went on to achieve another victory in a torrid affair the next day. The ‘two games in two days’ format between the countries, christened the Unity Cup, is to comply with Ukrainian Government policy which requires at least two matches be played before funding for the trip kicks in.

Immediately after the match Greece coach Steve Georgallis declared his team “got what they deserved” after they appeared to take the visiting team too lightly and pushed their passes leading to a high number of errors against a relentless and physical Ukraine defence. 

Greece should have been aware of the danger Ukraine posed after coming away from a 2021 World Cup qualifying match in 2018 with a close 28-26 victory in Kharkiv. 

“The cool thing was the discipline in our game,” Martyrosian, whose day job entails being a marksman in the infantry, told Rugby League World.

“We had a training camp in Lviv where we spent a lot of time on the technical aspects of our tackling and defence.

“Our first half was built on defence but after 20 minutes we saw some opportunities against Greece and we began our Plan B. We rebuilt our tactics to be more about attack.”

A reminder of the enormity of Ukraine’s situation came via a post from the Lviv Tigers Facebook page immediately after the win saying: We dedicate the victory of the Ukrainian National team to our rugby boys and everyone on the frontline. 

“We lost players who were in the national team and the junior national team (to serve in the armed forces). I would say about 50 or 60 players from each of our clubs went to the army at different times for this war. We have great respect and pride as we remember our players and other men and women who went to this war and unfortunately didn’t make it back home to their families.

“At the moment we don’t have a competition running and it is very difficult to organise junior or senior matches with the situation but we hoping next year to have a 13 a side competition again with the support of our partners.”

At present there are 10 clubs, 29 teams and 500 players including seniors and juniors playing rugby league across the country.

Martyrosian said the players in Ukraine watch as many Super League and NRL matches as they can. He nominates the Penrith Panthers, Canberra Raiders and South Sydney Rabbitohs as popular teams amongst the players. The Panthers have fans not only based on their recent success but also star player Nathan Cleary’s Ukrainian heritage.

The same situation applies to Canberra Raiders and NSW Origin player Hudson Young who like Cleary has a grandparent from Ukraine. Both players have sent messages of support to the country and the rugby league team with Cleary saying that he and his brother were very proud of their heritage. 

Huddersfield’s Olly Wilson is also eligible for Ukraine, along with former Super League players James Saltonstall, now with Halifax, and Sean Penkywicz.

However Martyrosian, who became involved with Ukraine rugby league in 2006, developed a love for Penrith after watching the 2003 NRL Grand Final. It was on the back of one of the most famous plays in rugby league history, the Scott Sattler chase down and sideline tackle of Sydney Roosters winger Todd Byrne after he was in the clear and looked certain to score with the match deadlocked at six all. 

“The first game I saw was the Grand Final in 2003. I can’t forget the tackle made by the number 13 Sattler. 

“I played number 13 in rugby league so for me it was an example. So after that I have watched many games.”

The first Ukraine rugby league club, Legion XIII, was formed by students in 2007 and played in the Russian Championship before the commencement of the four-team Ukrainian Championship in 2009. In 2010 that number increased to six clubs. 

Martyrosian has filled a number of roles since the sport’s inception. He is currently President and acting as men’s head coach while in Greece in the absence of England based Kevin Deighton and Australia based Dan Beardshaw.

Ukraine has taken steps recently to expand the talent base and reach out to heritage players resulting in a Ukraine men’s team playing in the Harmony 9s tournament in Sydney in 2023 and the formation of the Ukraine Trident Rugby League in Australia which played a 13-a-side heritage match against South Sudan (won 28-6 by the South Sudan Buffaloes) last November. Nathan Cleary’s younger brother Jett ran the water for Ukraine after being ruled out of the match with a shoulder injury.

“I think they had a good debut (in the Harmony 9s). They won one game out of three but they had just two training sessions and for a new team that’s a good result I think.

“Our plans involve bringing in heritage players and combining (with domestic players) because we can become a different level with experienced players from Australia and England or France. 

“Before the war we had a different philosophy which was about players from Ukraine Championship only. Now we can’t get the amount of players that we had previously so we changed our strategy and we thought our Australian and English brothers could help us find a way to the World Cup.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)

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