If it wasn’t for Rugby League, social distancing would have felt even more distant for Red Star Belgrade’s Daniel Watson.
The Australian headed for the Serbian city in February, last year, to work as a project manager for Europe/Emirates Strong Force post-tensioning – the biggest company of its kind in the Balkan region.
But taking the elusive job meant leaving his partner and child behind, although he heads back home at the earliest convenience with them in Australia.
Not this year, however, as his plans were abruptly halted as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. The virus has resulted in the postponement of the Serbian Rugby League Championship and Balkan Super League campaigns. For Watson, however, the impact of the sport is still very much alive in the near-apocalyptic circumstances.
“Coronavirus has pretty much struck down the city, it’s a complete ghost town,” he told Total Rugby League. “I was meant to go back on Wednesday for my yearly break, I had flights to Dubai and Australia. All the borders are shut and the airports. If you leave, you can’t come back. I won’t be able to see my family, as a result.
“I’ve had three of four of my teammates check up on me already. They’ve all got their families and they know I don’t. The club itself have brought us in from the very beginning, I came over with another Australian player, they know for us it’s all work and we’re very isolated. Finding the game here took a massive load off my shoulders because it gave me something to look forward to.”
Watson’s discovery of Rugby League in the reaches of Serbia is a story in itself. The forward had previously played for Runaway Bay Seagulls in the Gold Coast, before his ventures to Eastern Europe, while also turning out for teams in Sydney and New South Wales.
But activity of the 13-man code never crossed his mind when he moved to Serbia. Now seldom do you ever go to a golf course with the intention of seeing a Rugby League game, but that’s basically that happened.
“When we were at work, we finally got a weekend off and we went for a game of golf,” Watson explains.
“As we were playing, there was a game of Rugby League literally on the next field. The golf club is adjacent to Red Star’s stadium and the course actually wraps around it.
“We came up one hole and I saw their game and another hole went alongside it. They were videotaping that game and I could hear the English commentary. I hadn’t been able to speak to anyone for a long time in English.
“I asked them how long was left of the season and he told me this was their first game. We actually ended up being the touch judges for the game, we were going to play but we hadn’t trained so they didn’t think it was fair. They invited me down to come play, though, and I’ve played pretty much every game since.”
Watson has never looked back since, helping the side win a quadruple in 2019, with victories in the Serbian Championship, Cup, Super League and the Balkan Super League. Already an enriching experience for the Australian, who cites the infamous Red Star and Partizan match-ups as anecdotal evidence of the core passion in the sport.
Whether that passion will transfer into further success for Red Star remains to be seen, who’s Australian owner Colin Kleyweg has spearheaded a campaign for the club to join League 1. Another Australian, head coach and former Gold Coast Chargers chief Phil Economidis, has taken Watson under his wing. Such compatriots have had, in the eyes of Watson, an understated impact on his life and the lives of budding Serbian Rugby League players.
“It was unreal to be coached by Phil,” he beamed. “As soon as I found out he was coming back it was a massive shock for me, to actually train with someone like that.
“Phil and I have hit it off ever since, we were going for dinner and stuff. It’s hard for us not knowing people here, so as soon as you find another Australian you hang on to him. I’ve spoken to Colin too when he comes over, his love for the game is seriously changing people’s lives over here.
“The way the club is going is massive for the game worldwide. We want to branch out and that’s the natural step. The passion for the game here is like nothing I’ve seen before. “hen you’re Australian or English you’ve grown up with it but these guys have found the game and honestly they love it as much as we do.”