In the light of the Norwegian Government officially recognising Rugby League as a sport, here’s Rugby League World’s latest article, from the May edition, which tells of a connection between Scandinavia and Saddleworth Rangers.
I’m sure, by now, we’re all quite familiar with the affectionate relationship between Rochdale Hornets and Fiji. It’s one of Rugby League’s better told tales of a developing nation immersing itself in the Rugby League heartlands.
But, just 10 miles away in Saddleworth, another fledgling country is slowly finding its spiritual home away from home – Norway. The link stems from a meeting of slim probability, two Norwegian families in the small, rural community, who both became involved in Rugby League through Saddleworth Rangers.
35-year-old Lars Haigh, was the first to declare his availability, followed by brother Nils. Rangers teammate Thomas Hilton then joined the national side, as his younger brother has also recently finished the unlikely quartet. Both families have truly embraced their heritage, as the collection of villages famous for its Moors has become a Rugby League hub for Norway.
“I got involved in 2009. I started playing for the national team and my brother played in 2011 as well,” said Lars, who currently serves as the assistant coach of the national team. “There’s four of us who’ve played for Norway from Saddleworth. You’ve got me and my brother, our mum’s full Norwegian.
“Then, just by chance, you’ve got Thomas Hilton and Kristian Hilton just down the road from us. I played with Thomas in 2011 and then Kristian is only a teenager so he’s recently broken into the side and their mum’s Norwegian as well.
“My mum is the national team manager. She organises everything for the team, travel, kits and training camps. We’d struggle without her; it’s like a full-time job.
“My eldest son, Lewis who’s 16, plays for Saddleworth U18s and Norway U19s as well and we currently have a Norwegian here for six months playing in the Rangers 2nd team.
“He wants to gain some experience to hopefully cement a spot in the national team. He’s the fourth Norwegian to come over and play for Saddleworth.” Haigh, who’s first game was against Sweden in the Nordic Cup, has witnessed an immense amount of progress since the Federation’s early years after forming in 2008.
“You used to be able to just turn up and you’d kind of get a game,” admitted Haigh. “Now we’ve got training camps and you get selected from there, the standard has got massively better with more participants.
“We’ve got a big game against Greece which will be a tough one but anything is do-able. It’s our biggest game ever. Not a lot of teams get to play in England at our level, it will be a massive experience for all of them.
“Whatever the result, we’ve got to make sure there’s a legacy. If you win or lose, we’ve both still done well to get there, it’s still just the start. We’re still babies of the game. If we’ve managed to get to where we are now in 10 years, think where we could be in another ten years.”
Lars and the Saddleworth contingent are rarities in Norway’s history as a Rugby League nation as heritage players, as the Federation have preferred domestic-based players for their national team, not the standard outlook for most emerging nations.
Among those, however, are a number of players from all walks of life. Kenyan-born Frank Kiirinya has carved, similarly to Haigh, an unlikely journey to the national team from his homeland, as Norway’s governing body has embraced the international flavour.
“I was born and raised in Kenya,” he explains. “Since there is no Rugby League in Kenya, until recently, I played rugby union most of my life.
“I started playing rugby when I was in high school and joined Mwamba RFC when I completed high school. Mwamba RFC was the first all indigenous Kenyan rugby club and is one of the breeding grounds for Kenya’s rugby players.
“My stay at the club was short lived as I had to move to another town for my Bachelors’ study. This made it difficult for me to keep on playing rugby and I ended up taking a break from rugby to focus on my studies.
“Having cleared my Bachelor’s studies, I decided to further my studies in Norway because Norway offers free education. I was lucky to get a place at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim where I pursued my Master’s study in Telematics.
“I got a job after my studies and was blessed with a daughter thereafter; this meant there was no moving back to Kenya. I made the move to Norway ten years ago and this is where I started playing rugby once again.”
It was in the city of Trondheim where Kiriinya would play Rugby League again, after Trondheim Rugbyklubb was formed five years ago. Life was tough, at first, as they had to merge with Flisbyen Broncos briefly to make up the numbers.
Add to that a commute by flight, self-funded by players, from Central Norway to the likes of Flekkefjord Tigers and Kristiansand Krusaders in the South and Tromso Polar Bears in the Arctic Circle up North, and it was always going to be tough, but the Kenyan has seen stable growth.
“Not many of the guys were willing to give Rugby League a shot when it started here in Trondheim,” he added. “Rugby League faced similar challenges to those of rugby union. At the beginning we even had to join up with another club in order to make a full team. But in the last few years Rugby League has had a tremendous growth in Trondheim.
“We have been able to achieve a lot in such a short time. We have reached the final three times in the last four years and won it once as well. Most of the players are now willing to play both codes. This way you get to play more rugby in the season and in a way it also makes you a better player.”
His own personal journey to the national team, after becoming a naturalised Norwegian citizen, is one of similar difficulty, after breaking his right humerus in his first trial and then missing the cut the second time, but he refused to give up on the dream to represent his adopted nation.
“The next couple of months would end up being one of the toughest periods in my life. I was completely devastated, in my mind thinking that was the end, and there was no getting back from that kind of injury.
“But the coaches and my team mates really encouraged me and before I knew it, I was at the try outs the following year. I never made it to the team the second year as well. I was of course disappointed, but for me the fact that I was able to play again was light at the end of the tunnel.
“All I had to do was work even harder for that spot in the national team. Last year after trying out for the third time I finally made it.”
His first game came in the 20-12 defeat to Czech Republic in the European Championship last year, where a 40-22 win over Germany saw them clinch a place to face Greece in the play-offs. A 76-0 victory over Poland, in the first ever international, proved their might. The dream now, is to prove it on the big stage.
“This goes to show that we can, and we are able to actually qualify for the World Cup. And everyone is working really hard towards this goal,” added Kiriinya.
“The players believe in each other and push each other to reach their full potential, in addition the more experienced players have taken some of the younger players under their wings. These team dynamics are what I believe will get us to the World Cup.
“Qualifying would be a great achievement for Norway. Too much focus is placed on soccer and winter sports.