The key facts
World Rugby ranking: n/a – affiliated to Rugby Europe but not World Rugby
Playing record: P19 W8 L11 D0
Playing numbers: 300 (men, est), 80 (women, est), 150 (youth, est)
Rugby Europe division 2017/18:
Conference 2 South: Austria, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia
Results in 2016/17 campaign:
Rugby Europe Development League
Montenegro 20-32 Slovakia
Bulgaria 22-20 Slovakia
2016/17 league position: 1st
Barely a decade after playing their first international, Slovakia won promotion from Rugby Europe’s Development League earlier this year and now face a tough challenge to stay up in Conference 2 South.
He may not have ever set foot in the country, but former Leicester and Argentina prop Marcos Ayerza might just be the most well-known rugby player in Slovakia.
The reason behind his cult popularity is down to former international and current Slovakia Rugby Union board member Michal Mihalik. “Rugby had never been broadcast in Slovakia, but in 2013 a TV channel picked up English rugby for free as part of a Premier League football package,” explains Mihalik. “There weren't too many people who knew about rugby around, so they asked me. It always seemed to be Leicester games though, and as Marcos Ayerza is my favourite player, he got a lot of mentions.”
Sadly for Mihalik, his TV gig was short-lived as the channel went into liquidation, but he was called upon again two years later by another channel – coincidentally to commentate on Argentina versus France. “It was part of a rugby weekend,” says Mihalik. “They also showed Invictus with Matt Damon – to be honest, it didn’t have much of an impact on rugby.”
A TV station in Romania picked up the Rugby World Cup in the middle of the tournament, it was huge for sport in this country.
What did have an impact on the game in Slovakia, was the 2015 Rugby World Cup –England’s proximity meant word spread fast and the sport enjoyed a boost as the ripple effect spread from Twickenham far and wide. “A TV station in Romania picked up the Rugby World Cup in the middle of the tournament, it was huge for sport in this country – and I got to commentate again.”
Despite Mihalik’s efforts however, rugby remains in its comparative infancy in Slovakia. In modern times, rugby balls have only been thrown around in anything resembling an organised fashion since around 2004, although the first club actually existed almost 90 years before. “The first rugby club ever was in Bratislava in 1925,” says Mihalik. “It was one of the first clubs in Czechoslovakia but only lasted a few years. A second formed in the 1950s, based around an army unit, but the unit moved to a different part of the country in 1964 and rugby in Slovakia came to an end.”
Forty years on, a group of football fans disillusioned with their sport started using a local school pitch in Bratislava for training. “It was after watching the 2003 world cup, they wanted to give it a go,” explains Mihalik. “It was just a bunch of Slovak guys together with some ex-pats and a Czech guy who had a rugby ball. We started a club called Slovan Bratislava and five years we later we had a second.”
However, that ‘ripple effect’ from the 2015 Rugby World Cup has meant Slovakia have enjoyed a sustained period of growth in recent years. “We now have six clubs involved in 15s competition,” says Mihalik, “Five of them have a women’s side, and kids are playing rugby at all of them. It’s tough work to develop a sport in a country with no tradition, but we’re making little steps and getting better every year.”
One hurdle for the clubs to overcome is geography, with one of the sides, Slavia Kosice, far off in the east of the country. Like many of the developing nations, cross-border competition has been the solution. “Kosice play in Hungarian competitions,” says Mihalik. “It makes more sense for them to travel 150-300km rather than cover the 400km to Bratislava.”
Another issue is the gap in playing standard between sides. “When you start rugby, the differences are so big that you can’t put them in the same league, so even with six sides we have to split them into two divisions,” continues Mihalik. “That means we play each other a lot – four times – and rely on matches against touring sides from England to provide competition. To help our players get more game-time, we also let them play in the Czech competitions too as the league is much bigger over there – they have 15 sides.”
Slovakia won the Rugby Europe Development League in 2017.
Even in the short history of the union, the Slovakia national side has endured a rollercoaster ride, with financial constraints forcing them to take a year sabbatical in 2009. Since rejoining in 2010, things have started to look up – none more than the last campaign when they won the Rugby Europe Development league that included Montenegro and Bulgaria.
That wasn’t plain sailing either. With each side recording a win, it went down to the head-to-head results – not that Montenegro knew that. “It was a strange situation,” recalls Mihalik. “All of the games are played in the same venue over a few days, so we were viewing the final game online. At the end, Montenegro were celebrating because they thought it went down to points difference, but it was head-to-head so that meant we’d been promoted instead – eventually a Rugby Europe commissioner went over to tell them the bad news. It was sad for them, but good for us.”
Instead of the one-venue, round-robin format, Slovakia will play four fixtures, two in the autumn, two in the spring, against Austria, Serbia, Slovenia and Cyprus. “We wanted to be promoted to get out of the tournament system,” says Mihalik. “It’s better for us to be able to play all year, it helps us talk about the sport more.
“We are working on getting the games televised on the sports channel and being at this level for the first time will definitely help us.
“What would be a success? Not being relegated, now that would be a success.”
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