Reality check for Serbian Rugby League

The World Cup Qualifiers proved to be a bridge too far for Serbia but they are ready to learn from what has been a sobering experience.

Two heavy defeats, 168 points conceded and just one try scored hardly makes pleasant reading for Serbia following their World Cup qualifying campaign, but neither does it tell even half of the story.
A late replacement for Russia when they decided to focus on the restructuring of the sport there, Serbia went into games with Scotland and Greece full of hope, not least with the progress made by Red Star Belgrade, who played in this year’s Challenge Cup.
They also had a vastly experienced coach at the helm in Stuart Wilkinson, who noted on his appointment: “I’ve quickly bought into what this nation, the people and the players in Serbia are about, I’m surrounded by passion. There’s great potential and I’m committed to building something special with this group.”
But their World Cup qualifying matches were beset by issues, many of them outside their control, and the writing was on the wall by the time Scotland had scored a remarkable seven tries in the opening quarter of their game at the Lochinch Ground in Glasgow.
Serbia did regroup commendably, losing the second half by a more respectable 30 points in an 86-0 final score to give Wilkinson some hope.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the outcome but everything I’ve seen today can be fixed,” he said after the game. “In a lifetime of coaching, I’ve been in worse situations and able to turn it around.
“What isn’t fixable is attitude and the players tried to the bitter end. I was very proud of their effort and what they tried to do against a more experienced side.”
A lack of experience is central to the two results, with both Scotland and Greece able to call upon a wealth of it from both sides of the world, securing their own respective qualification for the 2021 World Cup as a result. Serbia, in contrast, had a primarily domestic-based squad, with eleven players from Red Star and seven from Partizan, both in Belgrade.
It was the same earlier this year when Serbia twice faced Yorkshire Lionhearts in this country, losing 26-22 at Heworth and 28-10 at Stanningley on their week-long tour. Of that squad, only prop Milos Calic, who plays in France, did not come from the domestic league.
One overseas-based player that did feature against both Scotland and Greece was back rower Jason Muranka, whose clubs include Doncaster, Newcastle Thunder, Gloucestershire All Golds, Dewsbury and Keighley.
But the Serbian players that are featuring in Australia are either already representatives over there and couldn’t play in the Qualifiers or are playing a number of levels below their Scottish and Greek counterparts. In the initial Serbian train-on squad, NRL Grand Final winger Nick Cotric, his brother Ilija, North Queensland Cowboys’ Tom Opacic and Australian Prime Minister’s representative Paul Momirovski were all named.
But none went onto feature in either match, and Manly superstars Jake and Tom Trbojevic being named in a 2016 World Cup qualifying squad is now also a distant memory.

“Anything we do now is not reflective of the talent and potential. It’s the equivalent of flogging the dead horse. This will take time and understanding of people in the game.”

Preparation for this year’s second game against Greece was then hit when Wilkinson was unable to travel to Serbia due to personal reasons, and despite no lack of effort from a gallant playing squad, another heavy defeat ensued, even though James Mirceski’s first minute try offered brief hope.
Off the field, Serbia were banned from filming the game for an agreed pay-per-view service because the ground was owned by the Ministry of Police. The licence was revoked on the day of the game by a government department.
It highlighted a broader stadium issue that has plagued the game in Serbia for some time. One key official that didn’t want to be named told Rugby League World that this remains the absolute key hurdle for Rugby League there – hardly helping a domestic competition that saw a host of matches forfeited this year.
Yet that hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm and belief for many of those involved.
“It’s not a pointless exercise and the effort and passion for the game is still there,” the unnamed official added. “But there are a series of massive lessons that must be learnt, and the game must unify even further in Serbia in 2020.”
The year had started with such promise for the sport in the Balkan nation, with the fact that Red Star Belgrade entered the Challenge Cup for the first time appearing to take the game there to another level after a somewhat chequered history.
Rugby League was first played in the country in 1956, before being effectively banned in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1960s under the influence of rugby union. The 13-a-side code re-emerged in 2002, and as many as 28 clubs have played in Serbia since.
Among them was Red Star, when three disillusioned rugby union players persuaded the iconic sporting club – whose football club rose to prominence in the 1990s – to adopt league in their diverse sporting portfolio in 2006.
Since then Red Star RL have gone from strength-to-strength, recently winning the domestic title three straight years. They were also crowned Balkan Super League champions – a competition comprising 14 clubs from eight different countries across the region – Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia.
Their entry into the Challenge Cup was born out of a willingness to test themselves after a host of one-sided wins at home, and they certainly got that at established Cumbrian amateurs Millom in January, in a match that was streamed live by the BBC.
The English side eventually ran out comfortable 38-10 winners, but not before Red Star had shown the potential that Serbian Rugby League clearly has.
“It was about our boys being tested by a traditional team in the game,” director of rugby, Englishman Mark Pullen reflected after the game. “They will take a lot away from this experience. It’s a long-term project. We would love to get the chance to return to the Challenge Cup next season.”
That was the plan, but Rugby League World can confirm that will not now happen, with the club looking at other options to test themselves in 2020.
They continued to do that throughout 2019. In May Red Star played the touring Lancashire Lionhearts, going down just 34-18 despite losing a key playmaker in the opening stages.
They became the first Serbian club to defeat English opposition when they beat New Earswick All Blacks in Belgrade in September, and also won their opening three matches in the London 9s in August.
But despite those successes, the World Cup Qualifiers have added a dose of reality, and it certainly feels as though Serbian Rugby League in general is at a crossroads at present and faces a vital year ahead.
Red Star director Colin Kleyweg told Rugby League World: “2019 will be remembered as a year of many achievements but coupled with too many abject failures. The key in 2020 is to minimise the downsides of what we are doing and to remember the road is long and not easy.
“We are playing teams where Rugby League is in the DNA. It’s not in our DNA yet and that’s where the difference in performance comes when our preparation is not meticulous.
“This is the reason we chose not to play in the Challenge Cup in 2020 even though we wanted to. Our players need two months off to recuperate. They started training in December 2018 for this season and they’re gone.
“Anything we do now is not reflective of the talent and potential. It’s the equivalent of flogging the dead horse. This will take time and understanding of people in the game.”

© Rugby League World