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All you need to know about Serbian rugby

Posted on August 14 2017

All you need to know about Serbian rugby

The key facts

World Rugby ranking: 78
Playing record (official Tests): P152 W54 L93 D5
Playing numbers: 2,636 (men), 509 (women), 750 (youth, est)
Rugby Europe division 2017/18:  
Conference 2 South: Austria, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia
Results in 2016/17 campaign:
Slovenia 74-13 Serbia
Serbia 25-0 Turkey
Bosnia-Herzegovina 21-10 Serbia
Serbia 29-12 Austria
2016/17 league position: 4th

 

The story of how Serbia played its first-ever international game is one that would surely make a Hollywood blockbuster. We talk to the union’s president Stevan Ilijasevic about an incredible rugby journey.

Having been among the sport’s forefathers, Scotland is home to many firsts when it comes to rugby, and that includes not only hosting, but also training up the first-ever Serbia 'national' side. That game was a hundred years ago, but the real story was not of the match, but what happened before. “In the First World War, the Serbian army had to retreat from Serbia because of the enemy offensive,” explains Stevan Ilijasevic, president of the Serbia Rugby Union. “They took with them many young Serbians and after a very tough journey they ended up in Greece. From here, the allies agreed to take some of those children and they went to school in Britain.

“Some went to George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, and they started to get involved in all of the activities like regular kids, this included rugby – and it turned out they were very good at it.”

They had traversed the Albanian mountain ranges – at times, under fire – and a fraction of those that left Serbia survived, just 70,000 making it, with around 240,000 thought to have perished.

In total, around 27 Serbian children went to George Heriot’s School, aged from 12 upwards. According to historians, the youngsters had survived ‘unimaginable horrors’ and were ‘barely able to speak a word of English’ when they arrived in Scotland.

With the army, they had traversed the Albanian mountain ranges – at times, under fire – and a fraction of those that left Serbia survived, just 70,000 making it, with around 240,000 thought to have perished.

For those survivors to eventually find not only safety and security, but also to thrive at the school is something of a miracle. What’s more, such was their aptitude that they even went on to create one of Serbia’s historic sporting milestones. “They were so good that the school decided to get them together in one side to play as the Serbian national side – it was an historic moment.”

The young Serbians faced a select side called the British Dominions and, in front of 10,000 spectators at Inverleith in 1918, won 8-3. Several of the players would make the school’s First XV and even played alongside future Scottish internationals.  “These players then returned after the war and became the intellectual elite,” explains Ilijasevic. “They would be involved in starting rugby in Serbia.”

The first Serbia 'national' side 1918
The Scottish school side featuring refugee Serbians

The first Serbian rugby club was Beli Orao from Šabac, formed in 1919, but with so much political unrest and the onset of the Second World War, it would only be in 1953 that rugby would return to Serbia, with the formation of the Yugoslavia Rugby Union. “A year later,” continues Ilijasevic, “delegates from Belgrade, Novi Sad, Pančevo (Serbia), Zagreb, Rijeka (Croatia) and Ljubljana (Slovenia) officially formed the first club competition which carried on right up to the civil war.”

Like many developing rugby countries, in the early days, sides formed and disbanded quickly in the region. “You did have rugby centres though," explains Ilijasevic, "where the game was more popular – these were Llubljana in Slovenia, Zagreb and Split in Croatia, Zenica in Bosnia and Belgrade and Pančevo in Serbia.”

In the last few years we’ve had a little rugby boom in Serbia. We’ve invested a lot of work with youth, and there are now 15 clubs in all competitions, including seven in Belgrade alone.

Since 1992 and the breaking up of Yugoslavia, sides from Serbia and Montenegro played in a championship, although Ilijasevic admits, it wasn’t ideal. “It was very unstable because of civil war and sanctions by Europe,” he says. “Every season the number of clubs changed, varying from four to eight.”

Now the league has stability.  “In the last few years we’ve had a little rugby boom in Serbia,” says Ilijasevic. “We’ve invested a lot of work with youth, and there are now 15 clubs in all competitions, including seven in Belgrade alone.”

One of those sides, RK Partizan, are actually one of the original – dating back to 1954 – and, along with fellow Belgrade outfit, RK Rad, have dominated the league from 1992. However, it’s a third club from the city, BRK Crvena Zvezda, who are the current champions.

“It’s not just Belgrade,” says Ilijasevic. “We have clubs right across the country, with sides in Novi Sad, Vršac, Pančevo, Starčevo, Ruma, Zrenjanin, Loznica and Kruševac.”

Serbia rugby
The Serbian national side with an average age of 22

Serbia’s burgeoning club scene is also bolstered by the presence of Vukovi from Montenegro, who play in a four-side super league with RK Rad, RK Partizan and BRK Crvena Zvezda. A second division features RK Loznica, GRK Vršac, RK Dinamo 1954 (Pančevo) and Vojvodina/Petrovrad (Novi Sad/Zrenjanin).

The remaining sides feature in a third development tens league aimed at building playing numbers and skills. “Some sides are also building from the youth upwards,” adds Ilijasevic, “so they have minis and juniors, but no seniors.”

More than 5,000 children played rugby in Serbia due to the Get into Rugby programme. There were just two U14 and two U12 sides three years ago. Now there are nine U14 and ten U12 teams, and rising!

A focus on youth has been bolstered by support from World Rugby and Rugby Europe through the Get into Rugby project and England’s RFU through the Unity Project, a legacy of the Rugby World Cup in which they provided support to 17 developing nations. “We’ve had coaches come to visit on several occasions and also referees to host courses,” explains Ilijasevic, “and at the beginning of the year, the RFU sent us a lot of kit and equipment.”

More than 5,000 children played rugby in Serbia due to the Get into Rugby programme with the boost most notable in youth players and clubs. The amount of mini and juniors has risen from just two U14 and two U12 sides three years ago to nine U14 and ten U12 teams, and rising!

As for the national side, they finished their 2016/17 Rugby Europe Conference 2 South campaign with two wins and two defeats, having beaten Austria (the eventual group runners-up) and Turkey. “We’ve shown improvement over the last two seasons so we’re happy in general,” says Ilijasevic, “but we’re a very young team, the average age is just 22 years old, so with every game we’re learning and getting more experience.

“To be honest, our ambition is to move forward but give ourselves a much bigger foundation in youth rugby – that will be the platform that we can build our national side on. And if we can build that future and move up a few places in the world rankings in the process that would be great.”

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